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Changes to industry

Question by: Joe Whalen

What changes have you noticed most in the pre-contract world in the last five years?


Hi Joe
Thanks for your great question!

From my experience of supporting clients’ bids over the past five years, I have noticed the following changes in the pre-contract world in that time. My experience includes producing technical responses for bids, and managing whole work-winning processes, so I offer my comments against that background.

The key changes that I have noticed are:

1. Clients realising that they have to think about preparing for bidding
2. Increasing focus on best price by offering better value for money
3. Improving the quality of writing
4. More attention paid to the decision to bid in the first place
5. Inadequate collateral about lessons learned from projects
6. Better processes to drive consistency in bid management

No. 5. is actually an issue for which change is still required, in my view. I have included it because I think it remains an important issue in bidding.

1. Clients realising that they have to think about preparing for bidding

I have noticed a shift towards realising that bidding is not a task to be handled with ‘vanilla’ responses. Much of my consultancy is for clients who realise their competitors’ significant efforts to prepare strong responses, and who want to improve to at least the same level. This is about storyboarding, identifying ‘hot buttons’, and writing answers that are compliant and responsive – going beyond merely answering the question. I think some bid teams find it quite a challenge to make the transition, so I spend increasing time coaching bid teams.

A lot of organisations, particularly those unfamiliar with formal bidding, assign the task of response writing to an individual(s) who goes ahead with writing based on responses to previous bids. All bids are the same, right? Wrong! I am pleased to see organisations moving towards giving bidding the focused attention that it and they deserve. I believe this is raising standards throughout the profession since people responsible for creating bids realise they can achieve much more than they had previously. They are upskilling their teams in the process. I see this as one of the most positive changes in the pre-contract world in the past five years.

2. Increasing focus on best price by offering better value for money

Maybe it goes without saying that there has been an increasing focus on low price, not just over the past five years. I have noticed more interaction between commercial teams and delivery teams in bid management, which is essential to achieve believable prices. Actually, the price subject has become even more focused on value for money than just low price. This reflects procurement teams’ desire for the best solutions at reasonable prices, avoiding ‘outlier’ bidders on the quality vs. price spectrum.

One client, with a somewhat mathematical mindset, put it to me that his tenders are “all about the equation – the numerator and denominator”, the numerator being quality and the denominator price. His mantra in his office is, “Think numerator, people!” His win themes are based on providing the best quality at all times, letting “the equation take care of itself.” I know his approach to tendering is sufficiently robust to tackle price as well, but I like the analogy.

End customers’ risk aversion has led to my clients having to accommodate greater commercial risk in their bids, and to provide increasingly innovative ideas to improve quality and to complete projects faster. I have noticed these drivers as part of the value for money dimension. In the construction world, for example, I find myself spending increasing time facilitating innovation workshops for bids. I view this as a positive change because it is part of the industry’s evolution towards greater efficiency and better infrastructure.

3. Improving the quality of writing

When I started working in the pre-contract world 25 years ago, I sensed a prevailing view that bigger was better – a ‘fat’ bid that landed on the table with a thud was bound to win over a thin one. Looking back with the benefit of today’s best practice, that view strikes me as very outmoded and unrealistic. I use a simple equation in my writing and when I deliver writing training:

Brevity + Clarity + Value = IMPACT

These variables are mutually inclusive. Why use 50 words when 10 will do? Make points clearly so that sentences have to be read once only. Write something that will interest the client, i.e. show value in the writing.

Over the past five years, I have noticed a keenness among clients to make their writing more efficient. Some clients ask me to join their bids at late stages to review draft responses for impact, which often entails restructuring the writing. There is an increasing recognition that less is more, which I see as an encouraging change.

4. More attention paid to the decision to bid in the first place

I have noticed organisations becoming choosier about what to bid. In my opinion, this is a positive change that reflects the need to marry expertise and value propositions with likelihood of success. The organisations that do this best have reliable information about lessons learned from past bids and from their field teams’ intelligence, and use that information to good effect via a process step requiring lessons learned review.

I have noticed businesses engage their field staff more effectively, including customer account managers, to incorporate unwritten customer requirements into the bid lifecycle. I was contacted recently by someone who said he wished he had paid more attention to issues ‘between the lines’. He commented that doing so would have indicated the inappropriateness of a particular tender for his business, and would have saved time and money that could have been devoted to other opportunities. Following some work that we did together, the client now has a proper bid process to force decision points, avoiding ‘scatter gun’ tendering.

5. Inadequate collateral about lessons learned from projects

I stated in item 4. that the best bidders have good information about lessons learned from bids. My point now is that many bidders have insufficient material about lessons learned from projects, i.e. how better services and products can be offered as a result of experiences from past projects. Why? My opinion: because identifying lessons learned from projects is usually difficult and time-consuming. Project teams are focused on preparing for the next project, rather than reviewing and recording lessons learned from the one just completed.

Your question was about changes that I have noticed most, but I thought it worth mentioning that lessons learned remains an issue that has changed little. I think a lot of organisations need to make more headway regarding lessons learned from projects. A bid is usually strengthened if it makes clear how the bidder’s performance will be influenced by lessons learned, providing the lessons are not so basic that they diminish credibility. No paying client wants to be anyone’s test bed, so taking advantage of lessons learned on someone else’s watch is an attractive proposition.

6. Better processes to drive consistency in bid management

I have noticed more talk of gate stages and decision trees in pre-contract conversations. This tells me that bid teams are aware of the importance of consistency, a factor that increases probability of success due to the structure and rigour that it brings – assuming the process is robust. I have worked with organisations from major contractors to small one-person consultancies to develop and implement bid processes. There seems to be a willingness to contemplate developing and improving the bid process, even among organisations that already have one – process refinement can help to increase efficiency in bid production. I have noticed organisations’ increasing desire to make bidding easier and to avoid ‘reinventing the wheel’ each time. A reliable process helps a lot for achieving that aspiration. It also ensures all bid team members remain held to account for their deliverables, thereby driving the whole effort towards timely reviews and completion.

I hope those comments are helpful, and I would really like to know your thoughts – and those of others who fancy contributing to this discussion. Other bid professionals will have noticed different changes in the past five years, and will have their own insights about my points, and I hope they contribute to this thread.