Content plans are used to create consistent, compliant, well-organized proposals. Teams should not start writing a content plan until there is a clear and shared view of what the finished product will look like, as without a clear specification of what needs to be created, the finished products will be inconsistent, incoherent, and low quality. Correcting poor quality late in the process requires rework, causing risk of a late or over-budget proposal. Therefore, plan, define quality criteria, and then execute. Here are some points to keep in mind:
Implement a systematic approach to designing content
Follow a simple, clear, and requirements-driven process to design content. Content development should be driven by the requirements of the prospect’s evaluation process. Document the process and support it with guidelines. Provide tools and templates to support the process and training in how to use them.
The process should be flexible enough to accommodate different types of proposal content and presentation as determined by the customer’s evaluation process.
The term ‘Content plan' embraces a wide range of techniques such as:
○ Proposal outlines
- Annotated outlines
- Section content plans
- Content plans
These terms can mean different things based on individual experience and training. Process documentation should define the terms and techniques to clarify the intent and planned use in your proposal.
Adapt the approach to each proposal’s situation.
The time invested in content planning should match the likely ROI. There should be a surplus of benefits over costs.
Content planning offers the following benefits:
- Helps writers structure their thinking
- Contributes to opportunity strategies
- Communicates win themes
- Enables review of plans before development
- Helps ensure compliance
- Improves consistency of messages
- Minimizes overlaps and prevents gaps
The main costs of content planning are the time and effort of the Proposal Manager and core team in creating plans before the kickoff meeting. If the returns will not match the effort invested or the time available is restricted, then the amount of planning must be adapted accordingly.
Creating detailed content plans for an experienced team, who already know the customer and are writing about existing products and services, will not provide the best return on your time investment. Where the customer or the products and services offered are new, or the solution and supporting story are complex, then detailed content planning is recommended to enable the team to work effectively. Similarly, a high-value, “must-win” opportunity will justify additional investment in detailed content plans.
Bidding a new product to a new customer is a high-risk strategy. It should only be used to break into new markets. Decisions for this level of pursuit should be made at the strategic planning or market assessment level before applying to a specific pursuit. Content plans communicate requirements. At a minimum, a plan should have enough detail to check that you have covered all the requirements and enable the team to understand who is writing what. Tailor the detail and rigor of your content plans according to the importance of the opportunity, the size and experience of your writing team, and the time available, taking into account the influencing factors described previously.
Build and manage a requirements baseline for each proposal.
For formal requests, the core team should thoroughly review the customer request, if not already completed as part of the proposal plan.
As part of the planning activity prior to proposal kickoff, do the following:
- Strip relevant items within the request that state or imply specific requirements
- Incorporate strategy plan from the proposal management plan.
- Ask SMEs to analyze technical and solution requirements and formulate solicitation questions to the customer, if any.
- Pay particular attention to proposal requirements
For informal requests, use your knowledge of the customer and understanding of the requirement using sources such as meeting records, verbal and written communications, the account plan, etc.
To build your requirements list:
- List known requirements
- Group requirements by category and priority
Consolidate requirements into a requirements checklist/requirements analysis matrix. Use the resulting requirements checklist to define required document organization and content for the proposal. You can use compliance and response matrices to provide requirements traceability between the customer request and your written offer for both formal and informal responses.
Create a robust topical outline.
Start the content planning process by building a robust topical outline for the proposal. An outline is a list of topics or headings to be covered. “Robustness” means that the structure will support the many demands placed upon it and remain stable throughout development of the proposal. An outline can take many forms, from a simple indented list to a detailed computer-based model. Choose an approach that is best fits your way of working, the proposal and team environment, and the demands of the proposal. Modern word processing, presentation, and mind mapping tools provide ways to manipulate data in both outline and detailed view. These can later be exported into other formats, such as spreadsheets or databases. Project management practitioners will recognize that the outline is a product breakdown structure for the planned document.
Making your outline consistent and compliant. RFP instructions will typically specify an outline down to the first or second level of numbering. Develop additional detail and structure down to third and fourth levels, taking care not to break the required number plan.
Follow the customer’s requested structure and naming conventions, even if they seem illogical. Non-compliance risks disqualification. If it is necessary to deviate from the customer’s imposed structure, the deviation and the reason for it should be explained in the text. Where no structure or numbering plan is imposed, follow the order and numbering of the bid request. Add detail where the evaluation weightings are highest. The customer may provide evaluation weightings in the tender instructions or supporting documentation to the RFP. If not, use your judgment and knowledge of the customer. Pay attention to page and word count limits, allocating most space where the available marks are greatest or where evaluation criteria have been identified in opportunity planning/win theming as critical to the customer. Address potential customer concerns that may not appear in the RFP, such as your ability to deliver projects on time and within budget. Where the customer does not impose a page budget, establish one.
Making your outline robust. When a compliant outline has been developed, it should be further refined to satisfy the following conditions: items in the outline should be mutually exclusive, complete, and exhaustive (MECE) and uniquely assignable.
Annotate the outline to provide guidance to authors.
Provide guidance to contributors by annotating the outline. Annotation can be added in-line to text or in a list. For tabular outlines, annotation can be added in new columns. Identify graphics to be used before the text is created. Draft an initial informative title and action caption for the graphic as part of the annotation.
Develop detailed content plans for important sections.
Apply the “just enough planning” principle. Too much planning unduly constrains the SME. Too little planning opens the door to non-compliance and poor quality. In many environments, an annotated outline satisfies the “just enough planning” principle and will provide an adequate basis for development. For some proposals or key proposal sections, it is often appropriate to develop the content plan in more detail.
Involve your writing team in content plan creation.
If section content plans are to be used, the Proposal Manager, with the support of the proposal team, should develop initial section content plans before kickoff. Distribute initial section content plans at the kickoff for further development by authors. The Proposal Manager should agree to and sign off on content plans before writing starts. Proposal authors are SMEs in their own domains, but may be unfamiliar with the techniques of content planning. Direct them to the sources of guidance available in the organization. Provide a sample completed plan as an example. The completed section content plan will provide a “contract” between the Proposal Manager and the contributor defining what is to be developed. Like outline annotations, sample content plans provide quality criteria for acceptance of all finished content.
Review content plans before starting to write.
Where time and budget allow, schedule a review of the completed section content plans before writing starts. Team review of content plans helps communicate strategy, align thinking, and enhance compliance. A combination of horizontal and vertical approaches, enables the team to test the consistency of the proposal as a whole.
Consolidate review comments before ending the review meeting so that participants are clear what changes. Keep copies of early versions of content plans so that changes can be tracked and the sources of strategy breaks identified. As needed, provide training to SMEs in proposal writing and use a company-standard style guide to ensure consistency across all writers.
Integrate content plans into the proposal development plan.
The outline is the basis for planning proposal development activities. Extend the outline to create a proposal responsibility matrix. For each uniquely assignable item in the outline, allocate a responsible developer. The responsibility should be unique so that the Proposal Manager, or Volume Manager if the proposal is managed by volume, has one accountable person for each section. From the outline and page budget, decide how many pages and graphics are required for each outline item. Identify how much of the content can be created by adapting re-usable content (boilerplate). Use historical metrics collected from previous pursuits to estimate the time and effort required.
Collect metrics from your own organization’s pursuits to build an estimating basis for your own proposals. Add due dates for each outline item and schedule in any planned reviews. Incorporate the resulting proposal responsibility matrix and schedule into the proposal management plan.
Use content plans to monitor quality and progress.
Extend the proposal responsibility matrix to show additional details such as planned finish, current status, and planned review dates. Use the resulting product status register to monitor progress and status. You can also use a stoplight chart. Use the quality criteria defined in the annotated outline or section content plans as the basis for quality activities and reviews.
Compliant, responsive, focused proposals do not happen by accident. Proposal content must be specified before it is created, and a wide range of techniques is available to support this process of specification. Proposal managers should select and use techniques appropriate to the proposal environment. At a minimum, a robust topical outline should be created as a basis for checking compliance and planning writing tasks. Use more detailed approaches where the opportunity is complex or important. Focus on complying with customer instructions and achieving a clear brief for proposal contributors so that requirements are not missed or duplicated. Set clear writing criteria for authors so they can create winning content that is “customer ready” from the first draft.
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