Where You Hang Your Hat

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Somewhat unusually, I’m writing this while being ‘between jobs’. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. I’m between contracts. But the effect is the same: I’m stuck at home with housework to do rather than a bid to submit. And it feels weird. We bidders enjoy a deadline, even if it’s someway off. And I don’t like hoovering. So, I’m somewhat thrown about what to do. Write a BQ article, that’s what. But be warned: I’m a bit grumpy.

So, an industry perspective…

During the past 25 years I’ve worked on all types of bid from the quick turnaround proposal where I’ve bid like a young man (eager to start and quick to finish), through to long-term defence opportunities where I’ve bid like an old man (slow and steady, with a break in the middle to change my slippers). I’ve worked in commercial and public sectors, in telecoms and defence, construction, transport, legal; in fact, too many to remember. Throughout this time, I’ve proudly called myself a ‘career bidder’: someone dedicated to the art and science of pure bidding who can bring these skills to any company that wants to win business. But things are changing. Generalists are being replaced by specialists; solution and bid teams are converging; programme teams are leading bids; and bid teams are leading programmes. Already I’m seeing ‘Head of Bids & Solutions’ jobs being advertised and a prerequisite for bid teams to have ‘detailed solution understanding and domain knowledge’. Humph. That’s about as transferable as a one-legged footballer. But, like Reggie the Hopping Goalkeeper, we have to reach for what we can get.

I think I know what’s happening. It’s to do with risk, competition and cost. And, maybe, a continuation of the decades-old cascade of bid methodologies from complex public sector bidding to less complex proposals. If the latter’s true, then my journey into multi-billion-pound defence bids may shine a laser-focused warhead on the subject.

When I moved into defence bidding in 2017, I’d come from a commodity-style proposal background where bid collateral was very ‘knowledge-centre centric’, bid turnaround times were three to four weeks and we worked on multiple concurrent bids. My first defence bid, on the other gobsmacking hand, would be my sole focus and had a turnaround time of four years. Four years? What the hell does a bid team do in this time? Cue my learning about what it takes to do complex bidding, and how this is cascading to less complex bids.

So, complex bids: The larger and more complex the customer requirement, the greater the need for a bespoke solution. Often the scope is beyond the capabilities of a single organisation, so partners are brought in to help. The proposition, technical solution, contract, pricing, delivery model and choice of late-night pizza becomes brand new or, if you’ve partnered well, it evolves from an amalgamation of consortia capabilities. All of this requires time, expertise, and a lot of money to build. It also requires a very credible team to sell it – both to the customer who will want to know every last detail and to internal stakeholders who will want to mitigate risk. Add to this the whole win strategy piece, about calculating how the new proposition will compete against other bidders that will also be creating new solutions, and things get protracted and specialised.

The danger is that the solution gets most of the attention, not the customer. Bid Directors can spend nearly all of their time weeding through the minutiae of the solution and commercial detail, to be able to answer a million and one questions in internal governance, or to stand tall in front of a customer team intent on knowing what you’re offering rather than why it will benefit them. And the core team of bid managers, writers and co-ordinators (yes, there can be more than one of each on complex deals) needs to build bid submissions so pedantically detailed as to double as the contract when the winner is announced. All of this conditions internal stakeholders and customers to expect the same on less complex deals. The devil in the detail on the big bids becomes the infernal nuisance of smaller ones. Wheels get reinvented, even when they don’t need to be; governance approval – like a randy goat – gets locked behind multiple gates; and everything gets a nice gleamy scrub so it looks perfect to all involved. It’s what I call ‘The Shiny Nail Syndrome’: pretty to admire but still a shaft of metal that’s built to take a clout.

Not all bids require a hammer to drive them home, some are like a needle sewing fine lace, but all solutions need a skilled team to articulate them. So, I’m for remaining as a pure bidder, the one with the polish, while others can forge the nail. The question is, what are you? Will you hang your hat on the nail as a free-to-roam generalist, or hammer the nail through your hat as a fixed-in-position specialist? Answers on a postcard to: Nige Hudson, c/o The One-Trick Pony, Submission Lane, Bidville, Winshire.

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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