Two Communication Breakdowns That Put Proposals at Risk, and How To Avoid Them

By Global Services on December 15, 2020


Proposal writing is a complex process requiring input from Business Development (BD) leads, Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), senior leaders, technical writers, proposal professionals, and more. The larger and more important the bid, the larger and more complicated this network of stakeholders becomes.

No matter the size of the effort, though, proposal teams face the same basic communication challenges. In this post, we’ll look at some of the most common mistakes that lead to communication breakdowns, and how to avoid them.

1. Making Assumptions

The Problem: One of the most common—and most preventable—sources of communication problems in proposal teams is making assumptions.

For instance, Writer A might reasonably assume that Writer B will write a particular past performance narrative, because Writer B was directly involved in performing that project. Meanwhile, Writer B might reasonably assume that Writer A will write it, because Writer A is writing the other three narratives required for the proposal.

Or a Book Boss might reasonably assume that their main technical writer is in touch with subcontractor SMEs as needed, since the technical writer is the one who needs SME support in order to write the technical approach. Meanwhile, the technical writer might reasonably assume that the Book Boss is the one responsible for contacting the SMEs, since the Book Boss has overall responsibility for the volume and has had more direct interactions with the subcontractors.

All of these assumptions make sense, and that’s the problem—because they seem like perfectly logical assumptions to make, the individuals involved may not even notice themselves making them. Meanwhile, the proposal falls behind schedule.

Further problems arise when different team members use the same terms to mean different things. Proposal teams share a common language, and when someone uses it, it’s easy to assume that they understand it the way you do—after all, they know the jargon!

But when two people talk about getting a document “ready for Pink Team Review,” they may actually mean very different things—Writer A might mean “most of the sections have bullet points indicating the direction the writing will go,” while Writer B might mean “nearly all of the sections will have unpolished-but-thorough narratives already written.” Thus B might be in for quite a shock when A hands in their “finished” work.

The Mitigation: Regular, precise communication is key. At the beginning of the proposal effort and in preparation for each major milestone, make sure everyone involved shares the same understanding of what is expected. As you head into Pink Team Review, for instance, give the team a detailed briefing on exactly what “Pink Team Ready” means to you. It can be tempting to skip over this step, especially if everyone on the team has proposal experience, but it’s worth taking 15 minutes now to avoid days of problems later.

In addition, hold recurring stand-up meetings to discuss proposal status. If a colleague says something that seems odd, or you don’t understand what they mean—ask! If you’re not sure who’s responsible for a particular task—ask!

To that end, it’s important to establish a team culture in which there are no “stupid” questions: the team should understand that when in doubt, it’s always better to make sure.

2. Overlooking Proposal Interdependencies

The Problem: Proposals have many, many (many) moving parts, and it can be easy for contributors to zero in on their tasks without thinking about the larger picture. As a result, they may lose sight of how their tasks depend on others’ input, and how others are depending on their input for their own tasks.

Say your team has a Red Team Review scheduled for noon on Wednesday. A writer may think they have until noon to finish writing—but that fails to account for the time it will take the Book Boss to review their content and go back to them for clarifications if needed.

Meanwhile, the Book Boss may think they have until noon to finish iterating with the writer—but that fails to account for the time it will take the Proposal Manager to format the document and distribute it to the review team.

Once the document has been distributed, the review can start right away—unless, say, some of the reviewers have trouble accessing the team SharePoint site, and the IT team has to get involved.

What at first sounded straightforward—be ready by noon—is in fact much more complicated, involving multiple team members and multiple potential sources of delay.

The Mitigation: To avoid these problems, think through interdependencies early and often during the proposal process, and plan for the risks they represent. Avoid the temptation toward “wishful scheduling,” and instead design your proposal calendar to account for likely delays. We’re not saying to always be anxious, but rather to be realistic about what could go wrong, and to have backup plans in place—that way, there’s no need for anxiety, even if things do go wrong.

Some often-overlooked items to keep in mind include:

  • Time needed for Book Bosses to review writers’ inputs
  • Time needed for Proposal Managers to prepare documents before a review
  • Time needed to deal with likely IT issues
  • Time needed for Proposal Managers to consolidate review feedback before recovery writing can begin
  • For hard copy submissions, time needed to print and bind initial copies, review, and print, bind, and package duplicates, as well as time needed to deliver the package to the courier, and for the courier to deliver it to the Government.
  • For soft copy submissions, time needed to register in any customer-specific portals (this can even take a matter of weeks in some cases), and time needed to deal with any electronic delivery problems (if, for instance, the proposal is too large for your outgoing mail or the customer’s incoming mail to handle).

Finally, make sure that everyone on the team knows their own deadlines, and understands that these are not the same as the major milestones: for a review that’s happening on Wednesday at noon, the Book Boss may have a deadline Tuesday COB, the writers at Monday noon, the graphic artists at Monday 3PM, and so on. While this may make the calendar look more complicated, it will save a lot of trouble in the long run.


Want to learn more about how your proposal team can communicate more effectively? Contact Global Services today!