How to Get an Objective Look at The Proposal

The best way–the only way, really–to make sure your proposal is giving the client what he wants is to have it reviewed by an objective panel that have been briefed to think like the client. This type of review is often called a Red Team Review.
The idea is to assemble a group of people who will read your proposal from the client’s perspective. You will ask your reviewers to read your proposal as if they were evaluating it. This means that they will not be looking at the draft as friends-as someone who will say, “Oh, guess I see what they mean,” and give you the benefit of the doubt. Quite the contrary. Ideally, if they don’t get what you’re trying to say, they will say, “I do not see what you mean,” and they give your section a failing grade. That’s what the customer would do.

This review is arguably the most important in the entire cycle. In fact, if you do no other reviewing prior to this-if your staff is small if the schedule won’t allow it or if you just don’t see the need for this entire review process-you should leave time in the schedule for the Red Team review.

Who should be on a Red Team?

Pick at least three people to serve on the Red Team (if it’s a long proposal, the number could range to up to ten). Ideally, you will have as many reviewers as you have major sections of the proposal.

The people you select should be knowledgeable in the areas they are reviewing. If, for instance, you have a section on how you will design the HVAC system for a facility, you better have a person who understands HVAC systems for the type of facility you’re proposing to design.

Your reviewers should also have understanding of what the client wants. You should brief the Red Team before the review about what you think the client is looking for. That way the team can be looking to see if your proposal hits the right buttons.

In addition, they should be dedicated to spending the time it takes to give the proposal a thorough review. This is an extra-curricular activity; it takes time out of your team’s busy schedule, and the chances are good they will have to work after hours or on a weekend to conduct their review.

Finally, each person needs to be able to play hardball; you’re going to ask them to be very critical, to step on toes if necessary, and to pull no punches. A Red Team member who holds back honest and incisive criticism because of a fear of hurting someone’s feelings is not helping the effort.

When should the Red Team review occur?

The second draft is the best time to conduct the red team review. To get the most out of the review, the draft should be as fairly complete. The first draft is too loose and unfinished, and if you wait until the third (final) draft, you don’t have enough time to incorporate the Red Team’s input.

Yeah, yeah, now you’ll say, “We never even have enough time to do a third draft; the second draft is usually what goes to the client.” I hear that a lot. And here’s what I say:

Number 1: the client usually gives you enough time to do more than two drafts of a proposal; it’s just that you usually procrastinate long enough that you never give yourselves the time to do a third draft.

Number 2: If you don’t take the time to review the second draft, you will likely lose to the team that does. My experience tells me that winners review their proposals from the standpoint of the client; losers make excuses for not doing it.

What should the Red Team do during the review?

During the review, each member will evaluate his/her assigned sections (or the whole thing, as the case may be) for the following in order of importance:

1. Responsiveness to the evaluation criteria and other solicitation requirements.

2. Convincingness of the proposal, including technical accuracy, substantiation of claims and clear client benefits.

3. Clarity of the writing and the graphics.

During the review, the team members should do the following:

  • Identify any problems, errors or omissions connected with the solicitation requirements.
  • Identify the strengths of the proposal.
  • Identify weaknesses and resolutions to them.
  • Emphasize how the proposal stacks up against the evaluation criteria.
  • Emphasize how persuasive-or not-the proposal is.
  • Recommend solutions. This is a critical element of the job. Pointing out errors is one thing, and it is the easy part. The hard part comes when the reviewer has to come up with plausible, useful ways of resolving problems with the proposal.┬áThis is the true value of the Red Team review.
  • The Red Team DOES NOT spend time correcting punctuation and grammar or wordsmithing the document. This is not the time for it.

When you write a proposal you run the considerable risk of becoming so enamored with the elegance of your solution-both your technical solution to resolving the client’s need and your solution for presenting it in your proposal-that you grow less and less capable of being a good judge of the most important aspect of any proposal: Will the client feel so strongly that it meets his needs that he simply can not eliminate it from the competition?