Learning the Art and Science of Bidding

23 years ago, I walked in to the head office of a multinational French conglomerate called Bouygues for a job interview. Set in lovely, well-furnished offices and based in leafy Surrey, I faced a friendly interview team. On the strength of that I managed to get a job as a trainee manager working out of one of their local depots. My depot operated outsourced Council services such as highways maintenance, street lighting, street cleaning, refuse collection and a winter gritting contract. This was a very ‘operational’ job which I enjoyed, but found myself soon looking to try something new. When an opportunity presented itself back at the HQ, I leapt at the chance. ‘Project Engineer’ – how exciting! Working in the new business team – very happy. What did it involve? I honestly had no idea…

So, I wasn’t quite sure what I was letting myself in for, but I was full of excitement. I admit I felt a bit more at home in the corporate environment that HQ provided. A few more suits than overalls. A bit less hairy. Anyway, I was getting used to my surroundings when suddenly I was presented with OJEU notices to sift through… blimey a whole new world unfolded in front of me. PQQs, RFPs and ITTs. I immediately loved the deadline driven nature of it, the thrill of the chase, beating the competition and the way it helps you understand lots of different aspects of how a company works and how it gets contracts.

Two great guys helped me. Tim, the Business Development Director, and a near to retirement Estimator called Nigel. They quickly explained what bidding was and how it worked. It was good to get their two very different perspectives – and they often had healthy debates. But largely after those initial insights, I was left to work it all out myself with the two other Project Engineers, another Tim and Gilles. I’m still in touch with these blokes and now we’ve all moved on, but back then we were all very much in the same boat. I do recall a few ‘no, no, no, no, no’ comments from Nigel when he saw I was getting it wrong, but apart from that it was Tim, Gilles and I working it out ourselves.

We were building resourcing and finance models, did reconnaissance on incumbents’ operations (including once being stopped by the police for following a refuse vehicle to a landfill site!) and wrote the responses and built the documents that were submitted to clients and prospects. Though we gave it our all, we pretty much made it up as we went along. We sometimes managed to borrow ideas from our French counterparts in the business (who were more experienced). Then we learnt the hard way what not to do to get a bid signed off and how to use the repro room when the guy who ran it went home and you needed to print overnight. At the time, all the essential skills we needed.

Though people say that learning on the job is essential and that gaining experience is so valuable, there’s a point where other forms of learning should be applied. I learnt some harsh realities in that first job and many could have been avoided with a little training and some proper coaching. Then you can practice on the job and the more you do, the more your skills become permanent.

It was two jobs later and probably around six years in to my bidding career before I had any formal training. I thank Martin Smith for this (before he launched his Bid Solutions venture). Martin employed me at Dell and it’s here that I got my first bit of formal training. Funnily enough this was delivered by Strategic Proposals (liked it so much that years later I joined the company!)

During my time at Dell I also had the pleasure of working with some great people. Some who had more experience than me. We all came together from different places and basically under Martin’s guidance, built the Opportunity Management team. Coupled with the formal training from Strategic Proposals, I got coaching from Martin, plus loads of learning from the fantastic healthy debates we had in the team. Helen Clark, Rob Dale, Steve Webster, Phil Nathan, Jon Darby, John Bradford, Peter Tucker, Fiona Flower and Marcus John all played a huge part in this. This combination helped me to understand how important it is to get a rounded perspective to your learning. It’s about the right blend of:

  • Formal training: developing and honing your bid, proposal, document, graphics, presentation, procurement and other relevant industry skills.
  • Coaching: on-going coaching from a mentor (could be your manager, but preferably someone a step away from pay and rations).
  • Healthy debate: with colleagues in your team around new ways to try and do things to improve your chances of winning and efficiency.
  • Testing against best practice: challenge what you do compared with others that you see and hear at proposal and bidding industry events.
  • Asking for advice: get guidance and points of view on your proposals from team mates. For example, ask them what they think of the executive summary you have just drafted with your sales lead. This helps learning and sharing of ideas, as well as continuous development.
  • Asking for feedback: proactively ask for this from the people you are working with. How did you perform? How could you do better? And then from clients.

And to make this really work, you really need a simple plan of just how you will bring all of the above points of reference in to play to your advantage.

I was lucky enough to have people around me help make most of the above happen, but it was more by luck than my good judgement. Think about how you are learning the art and science of bidding and consider if you are making use of all the different angles and perspectives that you can. Good luck!

This article was written by Graham Ablett.

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