If you’ve ever responded to a request for proposal (RFP), you know the feeling of relief that comes when you finally submit the finished proposal. After all, your response is likely the product of hours of hard work spent writing, revising, designing and reviewing. And, depending on your RFP project management approach (or lack thereof), the path to creating the final proposal may have been anything but clear. Unfortunately, this is the case for many proposal teams.
Without a clear RFP project management approach, responding to RFPs is chaotic, unclear and frustrating. Even worse, the lack of organization often results in unsuccessful bids, rendering the time you invested a total waste.
RFP project management brings order to the information, tasks and people involved in the RFP response process. Furthermore, it lays the groundwork for executing a faster, easier and more effective process.
If you’re looking for an organized approach to RFP responses, look no further. This post will explore the ins and outs of RFP project management. To start, you’ll learn key definitions, why project management works well for the proposal process and common approaches to try. Then, I’ll share key steps to implementing an RFP project management strategy. Finally, I’ll provide tips and resources to ensure success.
RFP project management basics
Project management is one of the three key skills required for successful proposal management. Indeed, it is the strategy for executing the proposal process.
Project management definition
Project management, sometimes abbreviated as PM, is the practice of planning and executing defined processes that organize the actions, tools, roles and knowledge required to accomplish a specific goal.
Typically, each project has a unique goal and a set ending point. Ultimately, the purpose of project management is to improve efficiency, consistency and outcomes.
What is an RFP in project management?
In project management, RFP stands for request for proposal. An RFP is a formal request sent from a buyer to potential vendors seeking a product, service or solution.
The RFP document asks all vendors the same questions. Then, interested vendors submit their answers in a proposal document for consideration. This approach promotes transparency and fairness while enabling buyers to make data-driven purchasing decisions using consistent criteria.
How project management principles apply to RFPs?
There’s no way around it, RFPs are notoriously difficult to manage. There are dozens of elements to organize. And, they are a key element of business growth. Despite their importance, the same challenges arise over and over again. Typically, the core of the problem is a lack of communication and accountability, making project management and RFPs a natural match.
Requests for proposals are projects with a set beginning and end. In addition, the many tools, people and actions required to accomplish the end goal must come together in the right order at the right time. Consequently, project management creates a helpful framework for organizing the RFP response process.
What does an RFP project manager do?
Many most successful proposal coordinators share similar duties and skill sets that make them particularly effective at proposal management.
Effective RFP project managers are:
- Team leaders
- Highly organized
- Critical thinkers
- Detail oriented
- Creative problem solvers
- Strategy focused
Proposal project manager responsibilities
Within the RFP response project, the proposal manager acts as the project manager. Consequently, they are ultimately responsible for the completion and on-time delivery of the proposal. However, there are a number of other responsibilities that they perform.
Proposal project manager duties
- Act as an advocate for the organization – If, at any point, the desired outcome is no longer achievable, it’s the PM’s responsibility to cut losses and move on or escalate the problem to executive management.
- Gather and aggregate intelligence – From summarizing the capture management plan to collecting and inserting answers from subject matter experts (SMEs), the proposal manager brings it all together.
- Facilitate team meetings – The project manager schedules meetings and creates the agenda. For example, they run the kick off, update, review and debrief meetings.
- Establish and communicate expectations – The RFP response timeline is created and enforced by the proposal project manager. For instance, they set touch points and milestones to ensure on-time final proposal delivery.
- Solve problems that arise – As the project manager, they are responsible for clearing roadblocks, managing bottlenecks, bridging communication gaps and correcting blindspots. Essentially, they do whatever it takes to keep the project moving forward.
- Facilitate communication between steps – The proposal project manager ensures that tasks with chronological dependencies move forward to the next person promptly. If your process is manual, that may be an email notification. Alternatively if you use RFP response software, those task notifications are managed by proposal automation.
- Act as the buyer’s point of contact – To centralize communications between your organization and the buyer, the proposal manager acts as the primary point of contact. As such, they ask which elements of the RFP are most important to the evaluators, request scoring and evaluation information, seek feedback about lost opportunities and request evaluation scoring information.
- Verify the proposal is compliant – The project manager is responsible for ensuring that the proposal meets the RFP evaluation criteria and requirements before approving the final draft.
Benefits of RFP project management and common approaches
Project management defines the goal, and provides a step-by-step guide plan to reach that goal. Because it breaks down the project into individual tasks, deliverables and workflows, it’s much easier to manage. But, these aren’t the only benefits of RFP project management.
How project management improves the proposal process
- Ensures team alignment and defines objectives
- Improves process predictability
- Enhances clarity between teams by defining RFP terminology
- Provides quick updates for inquiring executive leaders
- Promotes consistency that enables data capture and optimization
- Creates an organized approach, making responding to unknown factors easier
- Enables fast adaptation to challenges by identifying impacted parties
- Reduces the risk of including inaccurate, unapproved or unreviewed responses
- Improves understanding of the meaning and intent of RFP questions
Common RFP project management strategies
Project management practices evolved over the years as business strategies and technology advanced. If finding the right approach for your team feels overwhelming, consider asking your proposal colleagues and fellow project managers for insight on the strategies they prefer. Alternatively, you can start by exploring three of the most popular approaches for RFPs below.
A good choice for teams that struggle to know who is doing what.
An RFP RACI matrix focuses on identifying the roles required to complete each task within the project. Indeed, the RACI acronym represents each of the roles and stands for responsible, accountable, consulted and informed. For example, when answering new questions in an RFP, the proposal manager is often the person responsible, a subject matter expert would be accountable, a stakeholder or sales person may be consulted and an executive would be informed.
Proposal timeline/Gantt chart
A good choice for teams that struggle with deadlines.
The proposal timeline and Gantt chart approach illustrates the order and timing of tasks at a glance. Generally, the proposal timeline gives an overview of the process and remains the same through the completion of the project. On the other hand, a Gantt chart details the timing and progress of individual tasks. Consequently, many teams use both tools in tandem.
Project implementation plan
A good choice for proposal teams that frequently include members new to RFPs.
The detail included in a proposal project implementation plan helps new stakeholders and subject matter experts navigate the process. This RFP project management approach focuses on providing context, detail and instructions for success. Furthermore, it guides contributors through the process and offers more background information than other approaches.
Additional project management approaches
Here are three more project management approaches that you may have heard of and could adapt to RFP responses. The Digital Project Manager has a helpful overview article with information on each.
- Agile – For an experienced team of doers, focuses on final outcomes, collaboration and flexibility
- Scrum – For teams with several strong leaders and well-defined areas of expertise within the proposal process
- Kanban – For teams that work best with visuals, focuses on individual task progress
How to improve your proposal process with project management
There are a few things that remain the same regardless of which project management approach you select. Here’s the steps that will make your new process successful.
1. Identify the goal of the project
Generally, this part is fairly straightforward. Clearly, you want to win an RFP opportunity. However, it’s important to think beyond that and define why this RFP is a good fit as well as the projected impact on the business if you win. In this situation, it is often helpful to refer back to your discussions to bid or not bid.
2. Define the project tasks
After you’ve identified your goal, you must clearly state the tasks that your team must accomplish for success. For example, your list might look like this:
- Create your project brief
- Identify tasks that can be accomplished concurrently
- Schedule and facilitate a kickoff meeting
- Collect and submit follow up questions for the buyer
- Review your RFP content library for reusable answers
- Customize reusable answers for this opportunity
- Assign new questions to subject matter experts
- Write and review new answers
- Set proposal pricing
- Compose proposal document
- Review for answer consistency and accuracy
- Format proposal
- Design and add visual elements
- Ensure that each of the RFP business requirements are met
- Final review by marketing and sales
- Executive review and approval of proposal
- Final proposal submission
- Request feedback on final result
- Hold debrief meeting for feedback
- Optimize processes and update knowledge library
3. Build your proposal team
Now, review your task list. Who is best suited to accomplish each item? Will they need help, input or review from others? Match people with the tasks they will be assigned and the role they will play in the process. Your list will likely include stakeholders, support staff, SMEs, department heads and executive leaders.
4. Explore information and tools needed
Next, you need to ensure that your team has the information and tools they need to successfully accomplish the tasks you’ve provided. For instance, do your subject matter experts all have access to your knowledge library, centralized proposal or better yet, RFP software? Do you have the performance data and customer references the buyer asked for? Has your capture management team provided their research, win themes and customer insights? Avoid delays and roadblocks in your process by verifying the necessary resources are available before the project begins.
5. Create a project brief
Bring it all together in a project brief. Start with your project goal. Then, share the key milestones in the project. For example, you might include when follow up questions are due, when SME answers are due and the proposal submission deadline. Next, provide the project tasks matched with the assigned staff. Finally, provide the information that contributors will need to complete their tasks.
6. Get started
Now, you’re ready to execute your project. At the kickoff meeting, ensure everyone is aware of the RFP project management approach and how to use it. Then, it’s up to you as the project manager to keep the process on track.
7. Track and save key data
One of the biggest benefits of proposal project management is the opportunity to gather RFP data. Indeed, thanks to the consistency of your process, you can track response cost, time spent, answer quality and final outcome. Once you’ve collected enough data, review for patterns, roadblocks and opportunities for improvement.
RFP project management tips
When your proposal team gathers for meetings, remember your intent and purpose. You’re not asking for opinions. You are dealing in facts. Are the contributors’ workloads manageable? Is the project progressing as expected? Are the required resources and information available? Is the plan feasible?
Essentially, you’re asking the team for insight on any potential gaps or blind spots. However, you are NOT asking for input about the project management style, responsibilities or reviews. We all have that team member that always has something negative to say. Don’t let anyone derail your project with uncertainty.
Adjust as needed
While consistency is an essential element to reap the full benefits of project management, not every RFP needs the full treatment. For instance, if a proposal is brief and requires input from two people, you can abbreviate your process and accelerate your timeline. In addition, if you’re the incumbent vendor and the RFP is a formality, the approach should change.
Remember, generally these methodologies are best used to manage big projects. So, if an informal process is significantly more efficient to achieve the end goal, then do it and spend the time you saved tackling something else.
Seek executive support
Inevitably, you’ll encounter roadblocks and challenges. If they’re caused by someone outside of your chain of command, you may feel uncomfortable addressing the issue. This is why it’s so important to have executive support.
When your team sees visible support from executives, you’ll benefit from an improved position in workload prioritization, mediation if needed, enhanced responsiveness and a higher awareness of the value of your work.
Centralize the process
Many proposal teams struggle with miscommunications and a lack of clarity around the proposal process. By centralizing everything, each team member has access to all the information they need to make informed decisions and carry out their next steps.
While shared drives help, the most effective way to centralize the proposal process while improving efficiency at every step is RFP software. Your RFP response solution should feature workflows and collaboration, knowledge management, automation and integrations.
Don’t change your process to solve temporary problems
As a project manager, it’s important to identify the cause of challenges that arise. For instance, you may encounter unusual circumstances, unique barriers or uncooperative people. Certainly, it is tempting to alter the process immediately to try and solve the problem. However, resist this urge.
Unique circumstances are bound to come up from time to time. And, resistance to change is natural. But, rather than immediately solving perceived problems with process changes, focus on identifying the likelihood of the issue coming up again as well as improving buy-in and accountability with individuals. In short, don’t permanently alter your RFP project management approach to overcome temporary challenges.
Give it time
Unfortunately, you’re probably not going to have a seamless process the very first time you use your new RFP project management strategy. In fact, it’s possible that the first time you use a new process may be less efficient. However, persevere!
As you and your team become more familiar with the proactive RFP management process and expectations, you’ll see remarkable (and measurable) improvements. Remember, reverting back to a reactive process will keep you from reaching your full potential.
Ultimately, the purpose of RFP project management is to reduce the number of hours it takes to create a proposal while also improving the likelihood of success.
As we all know, the hours you put into a proposal aren’t free. Not only does a more efficient RFP process save your company money, but it also gives you more time to answer additional RFPs with the potential to further grow your business. The result? A compounded impact that any proposal team can achieve with the right knowledge, process and tools.