“There is No Spoon”

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Culture (n.) from Latin ‘cultura’ meaning ‘to prepare the ground for growth’

Club (n.) from Old Norse ‘klubba’ meaning ‘big stick used to hit people’

During the past 15 years I have worked in 42 countries across five continents. I’ve trained, coached or provided live deal support to more than 5,000 people. That’s a lot of individuals, teams, air miles and preaching of the bidders’ gospel. Does this make me an expert in international bidding culture? Hardly. Only once have I attempted to speak the local language, asking a waitress at a Hungarian restaurant for kis somlói galuska (the bill). Rather embarrassingly, I was told by my hosts (an amazing bid team in Budapest) that I had asked the young lady if she knew where I could get my hands on some small creamy dumplings. Euphemisms and unfortunate new reputation intact, the Budapest team has never allowed me to forget the experience.

Whilst our friendship became much stronger as a result, I wish I’d persevered with learning other languages. It’s probably the best way to acknowledge international cultures. And although culture is created by a multitude of things, I’ve found that bidding is not hugely different from country to country – but the subtle differences are hugely important. Here are my four main observations:

1. Normal is not normal

It would be easy to cite examples of stereotypical differences in cultures, such as the French bid manager who was appalled when she saw people eating lunch at their desks in the UK, or the German bid manager who wrote an agenda on a whiteboard for a ten-minute coffee chat, but all would fall into the trap of comparing them to what we know as normal. Why? Because what is familiar to one person might be alien to another. When considering different cultures, first put aside any preconceptions we may have. Rather like in the film The Matrix, the advice is: “Do not try and bend the spoon, that’s impossible. Instead, only try to realise the truth: there is no spoon. Then you will see it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.” If you can learn to see, accept and embrace diversity and cultural peculiarities, then new perspectives may well present better ways of doing things.

2. The customer drives the culture (but vendors determine it)

The closer you are to a commodity buyer, the tougher things will be. You’ll have shorter timelines, harsher negotiations and more trying relationships. This is evident in telecoms within the UK and pharmaceuticals in Switzerland. It leads to more commercially focused bidding with less emphasis on the value proposition. The most extreme example I know is in Qatar where, when bidding into the construction industry, ‘bid bonds’ are commonplace. They are a piece of paper stuck to the outside of a sealed bid response that says: “We commit to delivering all of your requirements, and here is the price”. The actual bid response is only opened and read in the case of a breach of contract further down the line.

Bidders will inherently seek to delight a customer, so it’s easy to see how buyers can manipulate the culture. However, it is the sales culture within and between bidders that determines the behaviours. Some say yes to unreasonable demands, others say no. This is consistent everywhere I’ve worked. I remember submitting a proactive proposal to a Japanese car manufacturer who then requested and set progressively tighter turnaround times for improved offers. Eventually they gave eight-hour submission deadlines and still the bidder’s management agreed. When the P&L could not stand further erosion and the final BAFO request was refused, the company did not win. During the debrief, the customer said, “It is not in our culture to say no, so we kept pushing until you said no.”

3. It’s a people thing

Remember what Mahatma Gandhi said? “A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.” Make time to get to know and understand your colleagues, wherever they are. Relationships are possibly the single biggest factor for bidding success. Proper close working relationships are where favours can be asked, and people respect and help each other. It requires a time investment to build trust, and the correct starting point for the relationship. In Asia, for example, seniority is really important; people need to understand where you sit in an organisation. Similarly in Defence across the world, rank commands respect and so is one of the first things asked.

4. Virtual working is the future

I live in a remote north Wales village, yet I work for a very successful Danish financial services company. Nearly all of my colleagues live and work in the Nordics, but I’ve had no need to travel from my home office in 12 months. (My previous job required me to drive 900 miles per week for meetings across the UK.) All my meetings now are virtual. Because of this, my employer gets the best talent irrespective of where they live, and employees have a much better lifestyle free of daily commuting or time away from family. My virtual bid teams consist of people from across Europe. This brings cultural sensitivities and considerations to bear – notably language, time zones and working hours; but rather wonderfully it has highlighted the impressive focus that Nordic people give to work/life balance. There’s a lot to be learned from this: focus on output, efficiency, quality of work and flexibility. And be visible. It’s important to be there for one another.

We bidders – wherever we may be – are a family, bonded by a desire to do a good job and please others. We’re genuinely caring and supportive; we want to win; we face challenges from customers and competitors, and we know the all-too-familiar tension with Sales and their ‘strategic’ opportunities. Yet we remain the growth agents and do what’s needed to motivate those around us. We are, as the words say, a ‘culture club’.



This article was written by Nigel Hudson.

Nigel is passionate about professional development. He designed and delivered the APMP award-winning Bid Academy for Vodafone and co-authored Europe’s leading proposal syllabus with Strategic Proposals. He’s trained more than 4,000 people worldwide .

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