Losing a $58m Contract for Going Over the Proposal Page Limits! Lessons Learnt?
On May 17, GAO rejected Tetra Tech’s protest regarding its proposal for an information technology service contract for NSF. In short, the Technical Approach in Tetra Tech’s proposal received an unsatisfactory rating because it was 2 pages over the stated limit. Was this an oversight or due to some incompetency? I doubt it very much. I am sure that Tetra Tech has a very competent proposal team. Instead, I think the problem is misinterpretation of the RFP language; this conclusion has been strengthened by my own direct experience during the past month on 3 other occasions.
The first case was for the preparation of a proposal for CIO-SP3 RFP for a client. We were given a Red-Team ready version of the proposal. The first thing we noticed was that the client had not abided to the page limit for the technical section. We asked the client about it and realized that it was not an oversight; rather, a misinterpretation of the RFP language. In another case, working on a VETS 2 proposal, we realized that our client had a completely different interpretation of the requirements for the past experience which would prevent them from getting many points in the self-scoring system that they really deserved. In the third case, we were given the Red-Team ready version of a proposal, only to find that the Technical Section is completely off the mark from what the RFP was requiring. This again was because their proposal team had misunderstood the requirements set forth in the RFP.
In such cases – and I assume that the Tetra Tech case is also similar – this misinterpretation of the RFP requirements runs down the entire management system. In other words, even a red team review inside the company usually does not prevent such mistakes because even if this misconception is spotted, the proposal/BD team argues against it and it is overrun.
To prevent this, we always recommend to our clients to have their review (Red team and later) done by an outside agency. My own experience is that even the larger firms with very competent and expert proposal teams need to do this. Their work needs to be checked by an outside agency. Obviously, that outside team needs to be competent and capable of bringing in value; but the key is “outside”. I want to pound on this because many argue that their red team review is done by people in the company totally outside the circle of the proposal team. This is good but not sufficient. The problem is expertise vs authority. Usually, the proposal team members are the best the company has, in terms of preparing the proposal. So their word on the content of the RFP requirements has more weight that any others’. Even if the Red Team members have higher authority in the company; yet, when it comes down to expertise, the proposal team members usually have the last word. That is why it is crucial that proposal experts from an outside company review the material. They have the expertise but view the proposal from a separate perspective. (Please note that I am not negating the necessity of management involvement in the proposal process, including strategy as well as competition assessment and pricing; what I am stressing is that the proposal needs to be checked on the technical sides of it by a competent outside team. This is especially true for important and crucial RFPs such as the GSA VETS 2 or Alliant 2 or large VA/DOI or … construction/defense IDIQs/MATOCs, whose loss would be a major blow to the company.
This might seem a trivial issue but having personally experienced 3 similar cases just in one month in addition to the case of Tetra Tech, I suggest that management executives in companies give it a second thought – even if they have the best proposal teams in-house. For major undertakings, including the upcoming Alliant 2 or major MATOCs and IDIQs, complementing your in-house proposal team with an outside agency’s capabilities will certainly increase your win-rate.