Use content plans to create consistent, compliant, well-organized proposals.
Winning content is planned before it is created. How—and how much—planning is done will vary from proposal to proposal. But the underlying principle is the same: teams should not start writing until there’s a clear and shared view of what the finished product will look like.
The reason for doing this is simple. 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.
The approach is no different from best practice on any project or development effort. Plan, define quality criteria, and then execute.
1. Implement a systematic approach to designing content.
Follow a simple, clear, and requirements-driven process to design content (see Figure 1). 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.
2. 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
No benefits are achieved without costs. The main costs of content planning are the time and effort of the Bid and/or Proposal Manager and core team in creating plans before the kickoff meeting.
If the returns won’t match the effort invested or the time available is restricted, the amount of planning must be adapted accordingly. For example, if you’re working under a tight deadline, you may simply identify the customer’s key questions and requirements and develop a content plan for these and the executive summary. Sometimes, the appropriate amount of planning will be determined by the nature of the proposal solicitation and the required response.
|Proposal Type||Q&A Proposals||Requirements-Style Proposals|
|Description||The proposal request is framed as a series of questions or detailed compliance points. The required response comprises answers to the questions or a statement of compliance. The structure of the response is highly constrained||The proposal request defines top-level requirements or desired outcomes. The required response is a description of how the outcomes will be achieved. The prospect allows bidders wide discretion in structuring the response|
|Added value of detailed content planning||Low to medium||High|
|Advice||Confine planning to identification of compliant and responsive answers||Use plans to provide detailed guidance to authors|
In other situations, the return from detailed planning is determined by the sales situation, as shown in Figure 2. Creating detailed content plans for an experienced team who already know the customer and is writing about existing products and services won’t 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, 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 be used only 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. If the writing team is small or restricted to the core team, less communication is required. At a minimum, a plan should have enough detail to check that you’ve 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.
3. Build and manage a requirements baseline for each proposal.
According to the BD-CMM (SP 1.3 and SP 1.4), response teams should adhere to defined customer instructions and requests. Furthermore, requirements should be documented and communicated to the entire team. To document requirements, use a requirements analysis matrix or requirements checklist.
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 (see Figure 3)
- Incorporate the 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:
- Instructions relating to the required response or submission
- Type of response (e-procurement versus traditional printed response)
- Required format
- Numbering plan
- Page limitations
- Follow the sequence and numbering of the request
For informal requests, use your knowledge of the customer and understanding of the requirement using sources such as meeting records, verbal and written communications, and the account plan. To build your requirements list:
- List known requirements
- Group requirements by category and priority
- Identify conflicts between requirements or with other known issues relating to the request
- 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. To create a compliance matrix, add a statement of your compliance or non-compliance with each requirement to your requirements checklist. Add the reference to where in your proposal the requirement is addressed to create a response matrix.
4. 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 on it and remain stable throughout development of the proposal.
An outline can take many forms (see Figure 4), from a simple indented list to a detailed computer-based model. Choose an approach that best fits your way of working, the proposal and team environment, and the proposal’s demands.
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. Product-based approaches translate readily into the content planning process.
Making your outline consistent and compliant
To start your outline, follow the instructions contained in the proposal request. This includes:
- Required sections and structure
- Required numbering plan (if one is not given, follow the customer’s conventions over your in-house style)
- Required headings and terminology
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.
Unless the instructions direct otherwise, numbered headings should be restricted to three levels. Fourth-level headings and below should not be numbered, as in Figure 5.
Follow the customer’s requested structure and naming conventions, even if they seem illogical. Non-compliance risks disqualification. Sometimes, in the interests of ease of evaluation, it may be necessary to deviate from the customer’s imposed structure. In these cases, 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. The goal of all document design is ease of evaluation. It’s easier for the evaluators to score and compare similarly structured responses.
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 to determine how the evaluation weightings will be allocated.
Pay attention to page and word count limits, allocating the most space where the available marks are greatest or where evaluation criteria have been identified in opportunity/capture planning/win theming as critical to the customer. Also 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. Evaluators do not want to receive proposals that are longer than necessary.
This section focuses on planning content for the technical solution of your proposal. Keep in mind that your full proposal will likely also contain a commercial and financial section, which can detract from your page budget.
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.
Is it MECE?
- Are all the topics mutually exclusive? Have all overlaps and duplications been removed?
- Is the outline complete and exhaustive? Have all the requirements been covered?
- Does anything else need to be added? Add any other required content within the topical outline.
Is it uniquely assignable?
As part of the planning process, you will assign parts of your outline to specific authors. Could you assign responsibility for each topic or section in your outline to a single author in your team, or does the work need to be subdivided further? If further subdivision is required, can that safely be delegated to one person or team leader?
Review the outline with your team until you’re satisfied that these tests of robustness, shown in Figure 6, are met. An outline that has to be changed or responsibilities that have to be reassigned as a result of further analysis or discovery during the development process is not robust. Lack of robustness will lead to confusion, duplication of effort, rework, and potential non-compliance.
5. Annotate the outline to provide guidance to authors.
At this stage, the topical outline is still just a list of headings. 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.
Annotation should include:
- Graphics to be used
- Boilerplate to be used
- RFP requirements to be addressed
- Page and word count limits
- Themes and strategies for the section
- Customer terminology/style and usage to be used
- The answer to the question for each section (for all their planning, many writers fail to answer the question the customer asks)
- Proof points to support claims
Identify graphics to be used before the text is created. At the outline stage, the annotation can be a sketch of the graphic or a reference to an existing graphic. Draft an initial informative title and action caption for the graphic as part of the annotation.
The example outline annotations listed previously describe what to expect from each section. They are the quality criteria. Use these quality criteria to check delivered content when it is returned by authors.
6. 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.
The test of a good content plan is to ask, “Could I give this to the responsible author and expect him or her, using only what is in the plan and the kickoff briefing, to create compliant, responsive, focused content?“
If the answer is yes, you have done enough.
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’s often appropriate to develop the content plan in more detail.
There are many ways to plan detailed content, including:
- Section content plans. Often referred to as storyboards or frames, section content plans provide additional specification for a document section. PPM practitioners will recognize them as product descriptions.
- Mock-ups. Mock-ups are a page-by-page visualization of the finished document laid out in its planned final form. In addition to the design implicit in a content plan, they contain layout information and page space constraints. If a hardcopy proposal is required, mock-ups offer additional benefits to the printing process. They give the printer advance warning of what to expect, and for large proposals, they allow for planning of the number of folders and printing timeline required. They also help with planning for landscape enclosures and oversized attachments like project plans.
Use a template like the one in Figure 7 to create section content plans.
A template is essentially a list of headings stating what information or instructions are required. Adapt the template to cover the level of detailed required for each proposal. Suitable headings to include in a section content plan template include:
- Customer and proposal name or reference
- Graphics to use
- Reference number and title of the section
- Boilerplate to use
- Section purpose
- Case studies and proofs to use
- Requirements to be addressed
- Customer terms and language to use
- Win themes to use
- Page and word count limits
- Outline and headings for section content
Mock-ups, shown in Figure 8, involve an extra level of design and provide greater visualization of the finished proposal. This requires extra initial effort, but that effort is spent on creating something that will evolve into the finished proposal.
Section content plans are suited to a sequential development approach. Each step builds on what went before, so requirements need to be known in detail early in the process.
Mock-ups take a top-down approach in which each version is a progressively evolving prototype of the finished product. Mock-ups require an interactive development approach in which the team and key users work together to refine the view of the specification.
7. Involve your writing team in content plan creation.
If section content plans are to be used, the Bid or Proposal Manager, with the support of the proposal team, should develop initial section content plans before kickoff.
Distribute initial section content plans at kickoff for further development by authors.
The Bid or 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 Bid or Proposal Manager and the contributor that defines what is to be developed. Like outline annotations, sample content plans provide quality criteria for acceptance of all finished content.
8. Review content plans before starting to write.
Where time and budget allow, schedule a review of the completed section content plans before writing starts. The content plan review should include all internal stakeholders in the proposal, including:
- Proposal contributors and authors
- Appropriate senior managers who have an interest in the proposal
- Members of the Final Document Review team, if planned
- Members of the core team
Team review of content plans helps communicate strategy, align thinking, and enhance compliance. A combination of horizontal and vertical approaches, shown in Figure 9, enables the team to test the consistency of the entire proposal.
Horizontal review examines the sequence of section content plans and the consistency and flow of the planned proposal at the top level. It asks:
- Is the sequence logical and easy to follow?
- Is it compliant with the customer’s instructions?
- Does it tell a consistent story?
Vertical review is a deep dive on an individual section content plan. It asks:
- Does the plan meet the purpose for the section?
- Does it cover all the requirements for the section?
- Do the graphics support the story? Are they clear?
Consolidate review comments before ending the review meeting so that participants are clear what changes, if any, they should make to their plans.
The content plan review process may introduce inadvertent breaks from the strategies defined in the opportunity/capture plan. To resolve this, either the content plan or the strategies will need to change.
Keep copies of early versions of content plans so that you can track changes and identify the sources of strategy breaks. As needed, provide training to SMEs in proposal writing and use a company-standard style guide to ensure consistency across all writers.
9. 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 Bid, Proposal, 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 each outline item requires. Identify how much of the content can be created by adapting reusable content (boilerplate). Use historic metrics collected from previous pursuits to estimate the time and effort required.
The following development metrics were collected as part of the APMP 2002 Benchmarking Survey and are averages drawn from a wide range of industries and organizations. Collect metrics from your own organization’s pursuits to build an estimating basis for your own proposals. See Page and Document Design for more information:
- Simple graphic: 1–2 hours
- Complex graphic: 2–6 hours
- New material: Four pages per day
- Adapting boilerplate: 20–40 pages per day
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.
10. 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, as shown in Figure 10 (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.
Common Pitfalls and Misconceptions
Not enough planningContent planning happens when the Bid or Proposal Manager is under the most time pressure. The temptation is to dedicate less time to planning and review before the kickoff. The penalty for this, however, is poor-quality content and increased rework later in the proposal cycle.
A distinctly bad practice is to distribute the top-level outline to contributors with instructions to refer to the RFP and add any other requirements they may identify. This will lead to orphan requirements and duplications. An online collaboration tool or file sharing system can help contributors view and comment on each other’s work in real time. In addition, shredding an RFP and assigning responsibility for requirements early on can help teams cover their bases.
Introducing new techniques without training and support
Using any detailed planning technique requires support and adoption by those who have to use it. SMEs will react badly to any unfamiliar approach if the benefits to them are not clear. Writing proposals is not most people’s day job. Giving team members additional tasks without demonstrating their benefits may lead them to reject new tools.
- 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 specification process.
- Bid or 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’s customer ready from the first draft.