Nov 042014

Dr. Earl R. Smith II

Sometimes the battles you lose bring the best learning opportunities – sometimes they are only precursors of things to come. In this chapter, I want to focus on one type of battle that government contractors lose and need to learn from if they are going to avoid the feeling that they have been down a path before and did not enjoy it the first time.

What they say they want vs. what you think they need: Almost every contracting opportunity begins with a statement of need. Whether as a solicitation or FRP or through some other mechanism, the potential client puts out a statement of need. In most cases, the request is fairly detailed. Much information is made available about the context of the need, the solution or service required and the performance parameters which are important to the client. In many ways, the federal government is very helpful to companies seeking government contracts. They go out of their way to provide clear guidance. So why do things sometimes go so badly?

The first step down the path that leads to nowhere involves a basic misunderstanding of the nature of such requests. Two examples might serve to highlight the point.

Company A: This company had developed and deployed an enterprise-level software for a government agency. It had quickly become the central tool in command and control of mission-critical operations. The company had a good reputation for providing support and responding to clients needs for modifications. The challenge came with the rebid of the contract.

The basic conflict was between the interests of the client and the focus of the company. The company’s programmers were focused on the next generation of the software. The client wanted to extend the usage of the existing package and was not interested in further development until that had been accomplished.

The company’s bid was based on the development of the next generation software – even though the rebid request was clear. They bid what they thought the client needed – and what was in the interest of the company – rather what the client asked for. As a result, they lost the rebid. The company that won ended up hiring a large part of the team that developed and serviced the software. Within two years, they were acquired by a large integrator and enjoyed a big payoff. Company A is a shadow of its former self.

Company B: This company was a classic life-style operation. The CEO was in a comfort zone with around twenty million dollars of annual revenue. An opportunity arose to bid on a large piece of business based on the company’s track record, client relationships and oft stated objective of growing to the next level. The client had a close relationship to the company and trusted the CEO and senior management team.

The problem came when the company responded to the RFP. The client expected a more expansive vision for the work. Company B’s response was that of a twenty-million dollar per year operation. In this case, the company was not able to become what the client needed. They lost the business and later much of the other contracts they had with the client.

Much of the failure to win federal business is rooted in such mistakes. Often the best company does not win because of them. Many times I am called in after the explosion has occurred – not my favorite type of engagement. For reasons that I am sure you understand, I prefer to arrive on the scene in time to organize a process that will avoid the tragedy altogether. The brutal fact is that such catastrophic results are almost always avoidable – there is no reason why jobs and fortunes should be lost.

I have written a number of articles about how to avoid such ‘failures’. Here is one that you might find useful: Red-Teaming: Improve Your Chances of Winning the Business. The core idea is a senior panel of very experienced and well connected professionals who know both the client and their needs. This single step – subjecting all proposals to a careful red-team review – can reduce the chances for failure dramatically. When organized by an independent group – with no bias towards the tendencies of the management team – this approach can center the focus of the response and increase the chances of winning or retaining the business.

© Dr. Earl R. Smith II

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