Engaging with technical experts
Sometimes when I’m particularly frustrated in a proposal process, I try to imagine what it’s like in someone else’s shoes. The sheer number of stories I’ve invented in an effort to rationalize why a person is missing a deadline could fill volumes. Yet I know that it’s true - and only fair - that I understand the other side of the equation.
After ten years of working as a non-technical expert, I’ve spent a lot of time imaging in the world from the perspective of a technical expert contributing to a proposal process. Whether that is a headquarters monitoring and evaluation expert or a field based budgeting person, the frustrations seem to be pretty similar. Business development teams swoop in, commandeer all their time and energy, apply a very proscriptive definition of success (rarely based on actual realities on the ground), and then disappear back to whence they came with relatively limited thanks. It can be a frustrating role to get pulled into.
At the same time, I’m a business development person. I get the pain that can be felt by both sides when a technical person gets roped into proposal land. It’s a struggle for us to eke out the right information in a timely manner, let alone in a format that is understandable to someone who doesn’t have a decade of technical knowledge lurking in the back of their brain.
Based on that experience, I wanted to share some of the things that have helped make engaging with technical experts more productive (and enjoyable) during even the most speedy and chaotic proposal development efforts.
Build Understanding of Evaluation Criteria
#NotAllTechnicalExperts, but many have not spent extensive time working on proposals. That means that a lot of the aspects that we treat as sacrosanct aren’t understood in the same manner by folks just coming into our wild world. For this reason, I try to involve as many people as possible in kick-off meetings, where we take time to fully explain and discuss the requirements and evaluation criteria. You may not know all the technical experts who will ultimately contribute to the end product at that point, but building in that up front explanation can save time later on.
Reminding folks of those elements throughout the proposal process further reinforces why exactly we can’t swerve off into extreme scope creep - it also enables you to brief anyone who is just stepping into the process briefly without making it seem like you are taking extra time just to remind one person. Make note of what requirements apply in advance of any meetings, and do a quick up front reminder to make sure everyone in the room as a similar understanding.
Keep it Conversational
Remember, technical experts are experts you need to accomplish a shared goal. Talking down to them - or them talking down to you - is never going to help. This is why my number one tip is to keep most engagement with technical experts as conversational as possible. I try to keep technical experts away from writing, unless they are already an experienced technical writer. Sure, a concrete set of written questions and answers is fine in a pinch, but my ideal is far from that!
Ideally, I like to arrange as many conversations as possible between our technical and cost writers and technical experts. Engaging early and often allows the writers to develop a deep understanding of the technical content from the experts, while giving them the space to ask questions and craft a narrative or cost proposal based on their interpretation. This helps accomplish two things. First, it ensures that the technical narrative doesn’t get too bogged down in extreme acronym land and technical speak. The writer will keep the narrative approachable for reviewers who are perhaps less familiar with niche terminology. Second, it will allow the space for technical experts to review and critique drafts - without being overly attached to specific technical language in the draft, as they might have been if they were involved in writing.
Respect Experts’ Time via Extreme Preparation
At multiple points earlier this year, I’ve participated in proposal development efforts where we had to quickly bring in the perspectives of multiple technical experts. This rapid fire effort to incorporate a varied source of opinions tended to happen right when we had discovered that we were missing key people in the room. In those situations, it helped to really tailor the discussion to focus specifically on what was missing. Sure, we gave a cursory overview of the context of the discussion and explained why we needed their support to get the information we were looking for, but then we asked very pointed questions to fill very specific gaps in the proposal narrative.
By tailoring the discussion, we avoided scope creep and meeting overruns. Too often, I have seen well meaning technical experts want to share their opinions on questions long resolved earlier in the proposal process. Instead, any time the discussion fled to an unproductive tangent, we quickly brought it back to the core questions we had prepared. This led to shorter meetings with technical experts (respecting their busy schedules), and ensured that we got the detailed information we needed. If possible, even sending the questions in advance of any meetings can help technical experts know what to expect - and possibly even redirect you to a more appropriate contact if they aren’t the right person to answer those questions.
Keep open lines of communication
Whether you’re having ongoing conversations or pointed discussions, technical experts deserve to feel fully informed about the proposal process. Keeping them in the loop on coordination communication can be a huge step toward improved engagement. Too often I’ve seen technical experts brought in for a specific purpose, given concrete requests, but not kept in the loop as part of the proposal team. If there’s one thing you can do to help someone stick a deadline, it’s remind them what’s hinging on that deadline being met. That’s not the only reason I like experts to be in the loop, but it’s a huge benefit!
Another key benefit is that keeping them in the loop helps increase familiarity with the business development process as a whole. It also helps technical experts see how their input contributes to the overall success of a proposal. That long term investment helps breed more support for proposal processes, and helps air-dropped business development professionals build lasting relationships with technical experts across the organization.
As a final thought, I don’t want anyone to think that engaging technical experts is somehow going to go away. There is no situation where a quality proposal can be produced without quality content and input from technical experts. It’s foolish to think that would be possible. So if the problem isn’t going anywhere, then the solution has to be something that we own and work towards.
Ask technical experts at your own organization what would make their lives easier. Ask them what aspects of the process they’ve found most challenging. And for gods’ sake, include them in your submission day celebrations!