Proposal Teams as Learning Organizations

Modern organizations face unrelenting pressures to remain competitive in their business environments.  One way to address these pressures is to create a special type of nonprofit organization or company – a learning organization that facilitates the learning of its members and continuously transforms itself.

I was reminded of the importance of facilitating learning in a recent proposal debriefing.  I had just finished serving as the Proposal Manager on a bid to NASA.  We were proposing to manage an ongoing graduate fellowship program in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to help prepare NASA’s future workforce and contribute to the nation’s need for scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.

Although I have worked in proposal development for over two decades, during the debriefing I was pleasantly surprised to pick up several constructive suggestions about what I could have done better to manage this NASA proposal effort.  It was a forceful example to me of how proposal teams can function as learning organizations.

There is a voluminous literature on how to develop learning organizations, but a good start comes from a citation in our proposal.  In the first section, we discussed a book that is attracting attention at NASA, Tony Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap:  Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need – and What We Can Do About It (2008).  Although this is a study of America’s K-12 education system, Wagner’s advice can be used to help proposal teams become learning organizations.

According to Wagner, our nation’s schools do not teach students how to be critical thinkers and problem-solvers.  To prepare young people for productive adulthoods and civic engagement, Wagner recommends that schools concentrate on instilling seven survival skills for the 21st century:

  • Critical thinking and problem-solving.
  • Curiosity and imagination.
  • Collaboration across networks and leading by influence.
  • Agility and adaptability.
  • Initiative and entrepreneurialism.
  • Effective oral and written communication.
  • Accessing and analyzing information.

I doubt whether the skills needed on effective proposal teams are different.  To remain competitive as proposal professionals and as organizations, we will need to identify, recruit, and nurture the kinds of people who have these seven survival skills.  If proposal professionals cannot ask good questions, think critically, communicate effectively, or solve problems, then our proposals are not likely to remain competitive in the face of fierce competition for grants and contracts.

There are many ways to promote learning organizations both in the nonprofit world and the business arena.  For proposal professionals, a good first step would be to read Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap.  It is a stirring guide to what we should want for our children – and expect from our colleagues.

Leave a Reply