Can You Beat the Iron Triangle in Proposal Development?

According to software engineers, there is a standard rule that applies to all projects:

You can get it down on time, you can get the features you want, or you can get the price you planned on paying, but you cannot achieve all three simultaneously.

This standard rule is called the Iron Triangle, and it does not just apply to software development. As John Pavley pointed out in a recent article on the HuffingtonPost, it applies to almost every human endeavor. It certainly applies to proposal development.

In too many proposal development efforts, companies deal with the iron triangle in two predictable and ultimately self-defeating ways. First, they skimp on the budget and expect the proposal team to compensate by devoting more effort (i.e., hours) to the proposal. As a result, as effort increases beyond a certain point, energy, enthusiasm, and commitment decline, if not on this proposal than on future efforts.

And second, companies submit bids that may not have all the right features or have budgets that are not acceptable to reviewers, both due to the imbalance between increasing effort and decreasing resources.

Treating employees like machines and expecting under-resourced efforts to result in fabulous contracts is truly a form of self-defeating, magical thinking. To address the problems that commonly occur in the Iron Triangle, I recommend two simple but effective approaches:

• Manage energy as well as time. Treat energy rather than time as a renewable resource. Time is always a constraint in proposal development regardless of whether the deadline is three weeks or three months away. Instead, use the energy of your team carefully. Know when to walk, run, and sprint. Do not assume that the proposal team can sprint from the kick-off meeting to the delivery of the proposal. They can, but not too many times. And then what will you do? Schedule your proposals so that energy demands on the proposal team vary and that there is time for people to rest and renew.

• Find the time for reflection and learning within the proposal development process. Meet with your team members on a daily basis and take their temperature. Build into your schedule bursts of energy followed by formal activities that involve reflection and learning to address the inevitable delays and road blocks that occur in every human endeavor.

The Iron Triangle is aptly named, and it bedevils all of our efforts, including (or especially) proposal development. First, recognize that you and your proposal team are not exempt from the Iron Triangle. Second, make sure that you have enough resources and the right people in the right positions on the team. And third, be aware of energy depletion in proposal efforts. Manage the team’s energy so that they can work cooperatively and effectively. This means building in opportunities to critically evaluate the proposal effort during and not just after the proposal is submitted.

Energy always is finite, no matter what your boss may say. Manage it wisely and use it to learn as you go to survive in the Iron Triangle.

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