From Water Tables to Win Themes

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I found it a wonderful challenge to pivot into bid consultancy after 20 years in civil engineering and business development. It’s been a privilege to support clients’ bids for the 11 years since.

The theme for BQ17 had me pondering: How much do people with a civils background use their training in bidding?

The way I look at it, a lot. There are the technical subjects, of course, as well as knowing what matters most, to whom, and why.

A friend told a story from his undergraduate course where a student asked, “Will you be handing out notes at the end?” The reply from behind the lectern was, “Absolutely, I’ll give you all the notes you’ll ever need; they’re called the library.” I’m glad teaching methods have evolved (as has the predilection for collaboration and media to support it). But the subtext of the reply remains applicable through a bidding lens:

We must know how and where to find information to fuel proposals based on what really matters to the client and stakeholders, not merely nice-to-have material that demonstrates knowledge but adds no value.

So, is it necessary to have a civil engineering background to support bids in that discipline? You might think a civil engineer would say, “Of course,” but I’m actually more inclined to think it depends on the role(s) we undertake and when in the bid lifecycle we do so.

Bid strategy meetings I’ve led/contributed to focused on matters to shape the overall proposals and brought win themes to life. Open questions included:

  • How the client and stakeholders would benefit
  • How proposal strengths could be threaded through the bid
  • How the strategy themes contribute to reducing risk for the client and other stakeholders

Strategy sessions hover at the level of enablers. Examples in civil infrastructure bids are logistics planning, digital engineering, and design for manufacture and assembly. A working understanding of those topics (e.g. carbon reduction and the PAS 2080 standard, or data management over the whole asset lifecycle covered by ISO 19650) enables us to call on industry trends and challenge ourselves for better performance. Industry knowledge helps to guide these challenges if we leave plenty of latitude for every contributor to inform thinking to avoid being blinkered.

At the more detailed level of response planning, the ‘way an industry talks’ is important. I recall meetings in which we discussed, for example, EPB TBMs, FATs, ITPs, the DMRB, D3M roads, and UTXs*. I’m not a fan of initialisms, acronyms and abbreviations, but they have their place when page or character limits are imposed and to prevent cumbersome long-string repetition. Subject matter experts often live by such terms because they’re so familiar with them. If we’ve previously used terms in their various contexts, we’re more likely to find meetings make sense and to contribute confidently. Of course, these things can be learned – and let’s remember it’ll be a sad day when we stop learning – but tight bid timescales mean prior working knowledge is useful.

I’ve worked on bids with colleagues whose core experience lays outside engineering but who learned throughout past bids from subject matter experts and technical reading, or from those whose roles didn’t require technical knowledge. Those colleagues’ time on the bids was successful because they capitalised on their transferable strengths: leading, co-ordinating, writing, reviewing, and other tasks. In those situations, it’s really great to learn from people’s experience in other sectors.

When reviewing responses, particularly in early reviews, I’ve found it helpful to add people with less industry and technical knowledge into the experienced reviewer mix for feedback. Theirs is as valid as experienced participants’ feedback because it’s usually provided without presumption of assessors’ detailed knowledge. Feedback is likely to come with important questions teasing out items worth considering further. “How is this point important to the client?” or “Why does this matter?”

If a response makes sense to someone not deeply familiar with the subject or a technical aspect, it’s because:

  • Technical detail is presented in language accessible to non-technical readers. This is important when responses might be read by secondary assessors not as familiar with the particular discipline. It’s always safer not to assume someone experienced in one specialism understands others in as much detail.
  • The response provides the level of technical detail required to answer the question, not excessive material demonstrating knowledge but adding little value or, worse, burying what matters most
  • Graphics are presented as great information designed to clarify how processes work and how activities interact to achieve benefits for the procuring client and stakeholders

The definition of civil engineering making the rounds in my student days was:

“…the art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man… “

Thankfully, the world has progressed to more inclusive messaging, but I love the part about ‘directing the great sources of power’. In bidding, we direct the great sources of team power to navigate the bid process and craft proposals that make an impact.

Whether or not we join a bid with immediately relevant experience, we must keep learning from each other, asking questions to make sure we haven’t missed a trick, and, crucially, enjoy and embrace what we do.


* EPB TBMs – Earth pressure balance tunnel boring machines; FATs – Factory acceptance tests; ITPs – Inspection and test plans; DMRB – Design Manual for Roads and Bridges; D3M – A dual carriageway with three lanes each way and hard shoulders, built as a motorway formation (but a non-motorway road could also be built this way, just to keep things interesting); UTX: Under-track crossing in railways

This article was written by Holger Garden .

Holger is a bid manager and writer, and a personal/ team performance coach. He spends most of his time supporting construction clients bidding for civil infrastructure and building projects, but his transferable skills have led to his work in the medical, charity and security arenas also.

He works with businesses of all sizes to help them win more work.

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