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A post by
Becky Shaw
Q+A SERIES
June 13, 2024

Help, I have an RFP to submit! Using a project mindset to help navigate a complex tender process

Help, I have an RFP to submit! Using a project mindset to help navigate a complex tender process

A post by
Becky Shaw
June 13, 2024
XX
min read

When you have a tender to respond to, it can quickly seem a daunting process and it often comes with the added pressure of a tight deadline. Being overwhelmed can result in last-minute efforts and late nights. Treating the submission as a project is the key to making it effective and manageable.

Getting started

We recently handled a brief through to submission in just five business days. This was a challenging timeline, so we took the opportunity to stress-test our internal tender action plan/checklist. Spoiler alert - it worked out really well, although we did spend a little time outside of standard office hours. Our diary is at the end of this article if you’re interested in how we managed each day. We’ve updated our checklist based on this recent experience to include points we found invaluable.

From experience, we know that having an action plan you can stick to will make the process smoother. It’s worth putting in time up front to save effort and stress later on. In this article, we share the approach we used, which we believe anyone can implement.

From experience, we know that having an action plan you can stick to will make the process smoother. It’s worth putting in time up front to save effort and stress later on.

Making it a project

The key to our approach is treating the submission process as a project. Even if you're not in project management or part of a delivery team, you can use these tips to break the work into manageable chunks, and stay on top of the timeline.

  • Step one: download all the tender documents
  • Step two: read all the tender documents
  • Step three: it's time to treat the submission like a project!

If you’re familiar with setting up a project and making a plan, jump ahead to our top tips!

At its heart, every project includes the following:

  1. Goal
  2. Team
  3. Budget
  4. Deadline

Get The Big Deal” is a way to remember these four.

The goal in this instance, is to deliver a winning proposal by the submission deadline.

The submission deadline will be included in the tender documentation. Locate this immediately. It will often be a date and a time. Make note of the time, and the timezone. Hot tip - add the date (and time) to your team calendar.

The budget in this case is not the proposal budget. Instead it's how much of your internal team's time do you want to spend on this, based on how important the win is - be that strategically, financially, interest, etc. Consider the return on investment. Is it worth burning hundreds of person-hours on the perfect proposal if the win is small?

If you are not the person to make that call - find out who is, and discover what this engagement means to your business. Discuss what you have learned from the tender documents with them. Have them set a ceiling to the invested time. Congrats, you now have a budget.

The team must be qualified for the task in hand. The team will be working to create the proposal submission. Identify the knowledge and skills you need to include in the submission team. Make sure the team has availability to meet the deadline, and is the right shape and size to meet your internal budget.

Identify who you think would be best placed to ensure a winning response is created, taking into consideration the strategic importance, or lack thereof, of this potential engagement. In a busy company people are tied up with active projects and don't have much time. They may only be able to provide limited time, so you need to maximise this input.

Now you have what you need to make a plan.

Planning the approach

Our checklist is designed to capture the information we need, and guide us through planning the submission project. Having it all mapped out on a single page means we don’t have to remember everything. It’s easy to fill out ahead of our team's kick off. This is how we approach it.

Clear responsibilities

Decide who is responsible for approving the proposal. Make sure they will be available before the deadline to review and approve. Establish a backup person in case they become unavailable when you need them!
Decide who is responsible for submitting the proposal - whether that involves sending an email, or uploading to a tender portal or web form. Establish a backup person for this task as well. 
Add the names of the rest of the proposal team so it’s easy for everyone to see who is involved. You can assign them tasks later.

Working space

Setup a collaborative space to work in - we love Miro boards. 
Setup a dedicated communication channel and invite the team - we use Slack. 

Regardless if your team is remote, hybrid or in person, having a single place to have written communication is vital. Even if it's just to leave notes for one another, keeping it separate from other company work is what's important.

Setup a shared space to store tender documents and related information. This could be an internal server space - whatever you regularly use as a business.

Setup a shared information hub. This could be within your Miro board, or within a Confluence space or even a pinned message on slack. This should be a starting point for all information. Our checklist provides all of the key information in one place, and we drop this into our Miro so that the team has all the relevant links and clear access to all submission information.

Key milestones

Book in a final review and approval meeting with the responsible person/s at least one day prior to the submission deadline, if at all possible. Ensure you leave plenty of time for last minute amendments. The day before this meeting is now your team's deadline (e.g. two days before submission).

While you have the calendar open, book regular catch ups with the team. Now you have your submission timeline mapped out. We find it helpful to capture these milestones on the checklist as a reminder to stay on track.

Make sure to effectively communicate the timeline with the team in your catch ups and via your dedicated communication channel so everyone is clear on what they are working towards.

Not sure it's worth the effort?

If you're not used to setting up a project, this might feel like a lot. It might even feel like a lot for such a short lived "project". You might think you don't need all of this. Here's why it’s worth the effort.

Allocated responsibilities

Knowing who is responsible, and for what, ensures you have correct approvals within the organisation. Having a backup approver prevents you from scrambling at the last minute, or submitting an unapproved proposal.  We needed our backup approval person for our recent submission. Having this in place made it a smooth process, rather than a panic.

Having a final review session booked in advance allows you to work towards a clear deadline without a last minute rush. Calendars get booked up with busy people, so do it early.

Collaborative workspace

Without a collaborative workspace information becomes disparate and fractured, making it much harder to bring together the finished proposal. If you win you have all of this early thinking captured to build upon.

Without a dedicated communication channel, important people might be left out of the loop, key information can be missed when passing on messages, and it will take longer to ensure everyone is up to date. When you win the work you can convert this into the project comms channel - retaining all discussions from the proposal stage  so nothing gets lost. If you don't win, archive the channel, as the pinned information may be a useful reference for similar work in the future.

Information hub

Without a single information storage area, the team can miss out on vital documents. So much time and frustration is caused by people asking, and looking repeatedly for the same files.

Without an information hub you don't have a clear starting point for the team, especially those who join along the way. This central point of information saves time and energy by avoiding the need to explain the same things repeatedly. It gives the team a clear place to begin and refer to at any point.

Check, mate

Our checklist has a number of key tasks, including some recent additions.
We believe these allow the team to tackle the proposal in the way that best suits us and the project, while providing guidance throughout the process.

A recent addition to this check list is to split up the submission questions.
We hadn’t highlighted this before, but we felt it was easy to overlook in the process, and it’s not one to be missed. Breaking up the questions allows work to be divided among the team ensuring that answers aren’t missed or mixed up. In our shared space, it’s also easy to spot which questions haven’t been tackled yet - a clear, visual progress indicator for the team.

Another addition is to book a team retro. We added this to the checklist because we believe that there is much to learn from a submission process (even when it only lasts five days!) and it’s easy to forget to book a retro.

Retrospective sessions are a great way to capture the learnings, what went well, what can be improved next time - and in this case, how did the action plan/checklist work out?

Five top tips

Here are our top tips to help stay on track and make the submission process smoother and less stressful.

Tip one: Digest the rules, understand the criteria

It might be boring, but it's vital, and must be done thoroughly - you do not want to lose out on a technicality or to misalign effort.

Tender submissions are often full of rules. From how you structure your answers, to what file types you can use, we have even had rules for which font to use.

Many proposals use automated screening systems to aid impartiality. Those systems have strict rules governing how the submission is processed. Ignoring the rules can lead to automatic disqualification.

Rules may also limit the length of your response, which helps the reviewing team achieve their evaluation within a reasonable time period, and facilitates easier impartial comparison between submissions.

To avoid losing points on your submission, it's vital not only to read but also explain the rules to your team. Understanding the scoring and evaluation criteria is essential to ensure focus and effort align.

To avoid losing points on your submission it's vital you not only read the rules, but that you understand them, know them and share them with the team.

Regularly reiterating the rules and scoring criteria to your team ensures they are met and aligned. Don't assume the team will remember or respect them. Ensure the proposal meets all the rules before submission, or your hard work could get disqualified. Someone on the team should be responsible for this!

Hot tip - list out all the rules into one place in your collaborative space so they are easy for everyone to refer to, and check off like a checklist.

Hot tip - list out all the rules into one place

Tip two: Collaborate, communicate, delegate

Responding to a tender can be a lot of work. If you really work as a team the effort is shared.

Use your collaborative space to share all work - individual and group. Through transparency there is trust. When you are limited on time it's even more important to have everything in one place.

Allow the team to work in their own way to enable them to be as effective as possible in the available time. Hold regular effective catch ups with everyone together to check in, ensure you're on track to finishing, see who needs help as well as catch any rule breakers or misaligned priorities.

Delegate tasks to the right people and make sure no one person is overburdened. It's too easy for some people to take on too much, and others to avoid volunteering. Share the load meaningfully between the team, aligning expertise with the appropriate tasks.

Hot tip - Pair people to review each other's answers, and give constructive feedback for improvements. Not everyone is going to be gifted at responding within a 500 character limit. That shouldn't prevent them from writing a longer answer, and getting a teammate to edit it down. Paired work can relieve a lot of stress on individuals and provide a fresh perspective.

Hot tip - Pair people to review each other's answers, and give constructive feedback for improvements.

Make sure to acknowledge the team's effort. More importantly, support them to be able to  work within time limits so they don't stay up all night. If that happens you either didn't have enough time from the start, or the time  was poorly managed - after the submission this should be discussed as a team to avoid in the future.

Tip three: Sensible filing

Another mundane job on the list is to make sure all documents are stored and named clearly.

Read through all the documents at the start and if there are links download the extra files and make sure everything is together in one logical place.

Making the effort at the outset will help you out further down the line when you are up against the submission deadline and also when you win the work. Assets and documentation you've already gathered or created will be easy to find and ready to use. Later on, you, and the team, will thank your past self for doing this.

Making the effort at the outset will help you out further down the line when you are up against the submission deadline

Tip four: Time management

Have regular, effective, check-ins with the team, and let them know what is expected to see and/or discuss in each session. This way you can spot if you're on track or the team is floundering sooner rather than later.

Remind the team of the next milestone, and the one after. This keeps the focus on the now and the next without taking it all on at once. Be clear on the reasons for the milestones - don't make them arbitrary or they won't matter.

Hot tip - Keep the internal proposal deadline sacred. Set this to be two days before the submission, if at all possible. It is close enough to the submission date to matter, but leaves just enough room for final tweaks without a wild panic.

Hot tip - Keep the internal proposal deadline sacred

If you have a super tight turnaround this may not be possible, so be pragmatic. With a five day turnaround we made this 1.5 hours before our final approval session.  

Don't skip the final approval and review session. If you can, have this no later than the morning before the submission date. There should be enough time to check everything in detail and to get company approval. Be prepared to make final tweaks to meet submission rules, fix typos and get it ready. If the approver ends up unavailable, switch to the backup person.

Tip five: Submit early

If you only take one thing from this article, I hope it's this tip: submit early.

If you only take one thing from this article, I hope it's this tip: submit early.

Tender portals have fixed deadline times, and will automatically close at that time. This can even happen if you are partway through submitting when that time hits. It can mean all your hard work is for nothing, and you failed to submit.

It has been known that when many applicants are submitting at once the portal systems can slow down, or stop working altogether. As you won't know if this will happen until it happens it's best to avoid this situation altogether.

Don’t underestimate how long it will take to upload. Even uploading a small number of files can easily take 10-15 minutes, as there are often multiple steps to the process.

If you can, submit at least one hour before the deadline. If you need to type your answers directly into the system, start even earlier. Make sure the submitter has the correct files and knows how and where to submit. If the submitter is unavailable, switch to your backup person.

Identifying the cut-off time at the start of the whole process removes stress at the end. Be especially mindful of timezones, as the portal might use a different timezone to the one you operate in!

Once you have submitted, check that all the files are up and correct. You want to have time to correct things before hitting the final submit button on the tender portal.

Don’t give up all hope if something goes wrong and you miss this deadline - contact the requesting organisation, ideally using the person that was approached to respond. It's not the ideal start to a partnership but it's better than not responding at all.

I love it when a plan comes together

Once submitted, sit back and take a breath. Hopefully you weren't sleepless and stressed.

Let your team know the submission has been sent - and celebrate that small victory.

Your project is now complete. You met your goal, you did it in the available time.

Now is the time to check on how you used that budget, so get those time logs in before everyone moves on and forgets.

Book a retro with the team in a few days, and find out what you learned along the way. What could you improve on for next time? What worked out great? What do you want to do more of?

All of this matters whether you progress through to the next round or not.

Good luck

Dear Diary

This is what our five day submission process looked like. This was managed with a small team around project work.

Day one: Monday

Read the tender, began to think of how we might help out and collect any previous or ongoing work that would be relevant to the tender. 

Team kick off and introduction to the client and brief.

Confirmed our team, our approval person and set up our Miro, Confluence, Slack channel and Drive folder.

Read through the brief carefully, highlighting key words and passages.

Day two: Tuesday

Deep dive into what might be required. 

Broke down what the submission should be and how many pages we thought each section should occupy (as we had a total page limit rule). This was helpful in demystifying the task as well as organising our workload. 

Found and uploaded additional relevant resources to the Miro board.

Populated the Confluence space with a breakdown of the brief, submission rules and scoring criteria. Added details for how the submission would need to be made.

In Miro, extracted PDFs  referenced in the brief, and those related to the response. Read through these and highlighted key words and passages. Started creating context for the response.

Broken down the questions for the response using sticky notes in Miro, grouping notes around each question to start formulating a rough response.

Team catch-up early in the afternoon to check-in and summarise the findings so far.

Day three: Wednesday 

Further research and planning for the response.

Adding links to all reference material in Confluence, and pulling out key information in Miro next to each question.

Team catch-up in the early afternoon to discuss concerns and confirm this is still a good fit. Discussed a rough scope of work for the proposal.

Created an initial timeline to include in the proposal.

Proposal document setup with section headings and notes for content to be added.

Day four: Thursday

Team check-in early and confirmed the plan for the day.

Shared agenda and timings via Slack for call planned that afternoon, so everyone could come informed to the call.

Updated timeline and costing plan created for the proposal, adjusted to be more in line with scope and client budget.

Initial work on the proposal document.

Mid-afternoon, wider team check-in for an hour to confirm the proposed timeline and budget viability, confirm the proposal is still a go to submit tomorrow, confirm who will work on each question. Emphasised the scoring criteria and the importance of each element in the proposal.

Work on the proposal questions by team. Due to project work, some of this continued outside of office hours which was not ideal. If we’d been able to meet earlier in the day this could have been avoided.

Day five: Friday

Started the day early - final adjustments made to the proposal document, resolving all comments made in the file.

Multiple read throughs of the full proposal to check it is the best it can be, meets the rules and is suitable for the scoring criteria.

Approval person was unavailable, so back up was called on to review the files again and approve them. This was so smooth, we felt grateful that we had the backup agreed ahead of time. Files prepared for submission (PDF) and checked again.

Double checked the submission approach before submitting.

Files submitted at 10:45am ahead of tender cut off at noon. This was slightly ahead of our planned early submission time of 11am.

Despite an early start to the day, this went without any stress or last minute panic.
If we’d had a longer timeline the early start could have been avoided.

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