Capture and proposal team leaders face challenges inherent to our business: fluid team composition, multiple concurrent tasks and opportunities, competing demands, changing priorities, and short deadlines. Most companies have a permanent cadre of full -time capture and proposal professionals supplemented by Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), consultants, and other specialists (contracts, pricing, Human Resources) for specific efforts. The fluid nature of capture and proposal teams creates challenges and opportunities for the team leader. To be successful, team leaders must understand the difference between teamwork and teaming.
Understanding that temporarily formed capture and proposal teams require a different leadership style is an important component of effective leadership.
What’s the Difference?
According to Harvard Business Review (HBR), teamwork is about stable teams of people who have learned to work together over time, for example, a Proposal Operations group. Teaming is “teamwork on the fly”: when we “gather experts in temporary groups to solve problems they’re encountering for the first and perhaps only time.” When we bring together a group of professionals to solution our offer, write a proposal, or perform a proposal review, we are teaming. We gather people who may never have worked together before and may never have worked on a capture or proposal effort. These teaming situations are complex, full of uncertainties, and can lead to chaos if leadership fails to recognize the need for a different management style.
No two opportunity pursuits are the same, and each one involves teams of different seniority and experience levels, backgrounds, cultures and attitudes – and even time zones. Because teaming is a temporary situation, team members often have little desire to invest in building relationships as they would for a more permanent teamwork situation. They may not recognize the Capture or Proposal Manager leading the team as an authority figure. So, what can the Capture or Proposal Manager do to lead these teaming situations effectively and achieve a winning outcome?
The Hardware and the Software
According to HBR researchers, a classic error is to assume 1) all teaming tasks must be performed collaboratively, and 2) teaming tasks must follow the traditional phases of initiation, planning, execution, completion, and monitoring. Some tasks may be accomplished better solo. Some execution tasks may occur during planning or monitoring. HBR leadership studies have identified hardware and software to provide the flexibility to work effectively in the fast-paced, multi-tasking teaming environment that capture and proposal teams experience.
Hardware: To maximize the hardware in teaming, the leader sets the scope, establishes boundaries, and sorts tasks. Scoping involves defining the challenge, determining what expertise the challenge requires, deciding on roles (some may be collaborative, and some may be independent), and determining responsibilities. Scoping may involve adding or removing people from the team on the fly, so the leader has the right mix of skills for various tasks – client meetings, solutioning, writing, and reviewing, for example.
…the entire team must understand that conflict is not necessarily bad, as it can create opportunities for innovation and new opportunities.
Boundaries involve establishing a light structure within which team members may work solo or form small teams for specific tasks with the ability to re-form as needed. This structuring makes it easier for team members to coordinate tasks and communicate—face-to-face or virtually. The leader may help here, for example, by distributing team bios and contact information/preferences, providing instructions on using teaming software or virtual repositories, and/or providing physical space for temporary co-location. Creating flexible but clear boundaries is critical at all phases of the capture and proposal process so team members can work as efficiently as possible.
Sorting is the final bit of hardware. The leader defines the tasks, establishes priorities, and most importantly identifies inter-dependencies. Inter-dependencies include whether tasks may be completed sequentially or in parallel or even iteratively in an agile manner. In our profession, effective Capture and Proposal Managers structure as many tasks as possible in parallel due to typically tight deadlines. However, some tasks must be performed sequentially, for example, we need a clear value proposition before we can write. Working sequentially or in parallel usually requires that team members combine efforts and may require reciprocal inter-dependence where team members communicate back and forth and, based on information received, potentially adjust. For example, a business development professional may have a customer meeting to vet a solution. The information she gains must be communicated and combined by the Solution Architects.
The leader must understand when the team should meet virtually or in person to brainstorm and share information, staying alert for lack of consensus that could cause bottlenecks. Therefore, the team leader must have the skills to analyze and make decisions that move the team forward. In addition, the entire team must understand that conflict is not necessarily bad, as it can create opportunities for innovation and new opportunities.
Even with effective hardware in place, teaming requires software. Shifting relationships in temporary teaming situations – so common in our profession — mean that people must quickly adapt to a new way of working with a new set of colleagues. To build trusted relationships, HBR recommends that leaders use four software tools: emphasizing purpose, building psychological safety, embracing failure, and putting conflict to work.
In capture and proposal efforts, establishing purpose is fairly clear: we all want to win. Building psychological safety may be more challenging. The leader must encourage everyone on the team to speak up and disagree when needed. The leader should model this behavior, according to HBR, by “asking thoughtful questions, acknowledging ignorance about a topic or area of expertise, and conveying awareness of one’s own fallibility. Leaders who act this way make it safer for everyone else to do so.” Some call this concept a culture of horizontal collaboration rather than hierarchical decision-making.
The third piece of software is embracing failures. We may have failures along the way, such as failing to get a meeting with a key decision-maker, or failures at the end such as proposal loss. Strong leaders take time for feedback loops and lessons learned, all of which provides essential information for next steps and future bids.
And finally, leaders must help teams put conflict to work. Even in the face of deadlines, effective leaders take time for listening, understanding different points of view, and bridging differences. If it is not possible to bridge differences, leaders may have to make difficult decisions to reconfigure the team or assign new roles or priorities.
Teaming on a Recompete
Let’s apply this theory of teaming to a common scenario – an incumbent preparing for a recompete bid. Teaming hardware could include the following:
- Scoping: The leader determines whether this recompete involves the same or new work scope, project team (prime and subcontractors), and customers. Are the customers satisfied with incumbent work? Is the project team on the ground gathering the intel and proof points needed for the recompete proposal? Which customers do we need to include in our call plan? Who do we need to add to the capture and proposal team and at what time? Can we use Agile iterations or a more traditional project timeline?
- Boundaries: The leader identifies how the capture and proposal team will work with the incumbent project team and each other. Does the team require regular or pop-up virtual or in person meetings? What technology solutions are in place to encourage collaboration? Is travel involved and if so, by whom and when?
- Sorting: The leader’s sorting may include determining whether the team must focus on improving relationships with the customers, identifying current and potential subcontractors, solving project problems, building an Exceptional CPARS rating, and solutioning with what priority, sequentially or in parallel, and with which tools. All of these types of questions require the leader to analyze and create a plan, adjusting as needed.
Teaming software may involve the following:
- Establishing purpose: In a recompete situation, the team obviously wants to win. However, the leader establishes a more refined sense of purpose. Can we still prime, or do we need to sub? Are we retaining jobs for everyone, or do some project team members need to leave to accommodate greening of the workforce and more competitive rates? Shared purpose involves a win, but the leader must define what this means.
- Psychological safety: The team leader cannot know everything. Acknowledging fallibility and even ignorance of specific aspects of the recompete encourages others to share knowledge in an open environment. Another important component of safety is treating everyone on the recompete effort – regardless of seniority level or permanent role (project, capture or proposal professional) — equally.
- Embracing failure: Every project has problems, and in a recompete, it is important to recognize any project failures and turn these into wins by identifying how we corrected a problem and will prevent re-occurrence. Absorbing the knowledge gained with failure helps the team to excel.
- Putting Conflict to Work: Recompetes often bring conflicts between the team on the ground charged with keeping the customer happy and the business development team asking for information and assistance to bring home the win. Facing conflicts and working to understand different perspectives can make all the difference in a temporary teaming situation.
Understanding that temporarily formed capture and proposal teams require a different leadership style is an important component of effective leadership. Teaming hardware and software provides structure to an often chaotic environment, enabling professionals to work together in new and more effective ways.