Unofficial Oral Proposal Guide
Why You Should Use Oral Proposals
Oral proposals are lauded as a significant reducer of procurement lead times, and they can be. But they can also not be a faster way to get on contract.
Procurements can have longer, not shorter, lead times if you specifically set up the process for a more in-depth understanding of the proposal—not a bad thing if that’s what you need for your acquisition—or if you instruct the vendors to provide both written and oral proposals or oral proposals in the form of video to be evaluated at the government team’s convenience. Because oral proposals, their submission requirements, and their evaluation criteria are all highly tailorable, you can both add and subtract time by using them.
The most rewarding feedback I get from any team I’ve trained is when they come back and tell me this technique has spoiled them by letting them cut months off their pre-award process and that life will never be the same for them.
I cannot stress this enough: the popularity of oral proposals is largely due to their reputation as a time saver, but if your team doesn’t know how to structure the submission instructions and evaluation criteria and hasn’t made every effort to understand exactly how to use oral proposals in their innovative contracting toolbox, then you will likely not save lead time. It’s more likely that you’ll add to your lead time.
When to Lengthen Your Lead Time
Here’s an example of when lengthening lead times makes sense in conjunction with oral proposals in a source selection: for a truly complex acquisition, you might employ a technique called “Oral Proposal Dry Runs.” Note that this is not the same as a mock run, or government team’s dress rehearsal, which I describe later in this guide.
First, because in this variation you intend to enter into discussions, go ahead and make the determination up front that you will be awarding with discussions. The vendors will present their draft, or dry run, oral proposals to the team under the same instructions or structure set up for the formal oral proposals, but the government team will provide feedback either at the end of the dry run or soon after in writing. The vendor will be given time—maybe two to four weeks—to incorporate the feedback into their formal oral proposals and re-present.
Declaring an intent to award with discussions up front takes care of the concern that clarifications will cross the line accidentally, but the government team must still be careful not to transfuse proposal ideas from one vendor to another or to level the technical approaches of all vendors, as the dry run part of the process is still considered source selection sensitive
When Not to Lengthen Your Lead Time
The dry run example above is unique in that it’s one of the few times where it makes sense to lengthen the lead time because the extra step in making sure that all parties understand each other will possibly outweigh the cost of another month or two to the overall program. If you can afford the time and the government is having a difficult job of explaining the requirement, give it consideration, but tailoring in additional workload for both government and industry should be the exception.
The government’s efforts are never truly “free time” or a no-cost resource, so even if you don’t need a solution to your requirement right away, by not using a faster method of procurement, you are wasting the opportunity costs of placing manpower against a different acquisition. Think big picture when spending the government’s money if you’re intentionally dragging out procurement lead time without a stellar reason. Think, too, about the burden added to industry—whether small or large firms—and any subsequent costs passed along to the government.
You can also unintentionally drag out oral proposals, in some cases tripling the lead time without meaning to. There are several ways the speed of oral proposals can be killed quickly, thanks to duplication and waste of resources.
Avoid these examples:
- The government team requests that the vendor provide an oral proposal in the form of a video (physical or digital) that can be watched at the evaluation team’s leisure.
- The government team requests that the vendor provide an oral proposal in the form of a video that supplements a full written proposal.
In both cases above where a video is required, the vendors may each spend $100-500K of proposal funds to create a Hollywood-worthy video, complete with hired actors to deliver the proposal eloquently. It’s a waste of money and effort for both sides, and the vendor will not appreciate the additional efforts for what will be nearly zero benefit to the evaluation team.
3. The government team requests an oral proposal in the form of oral delivery of the written proposal rather than in lieu of, aka “read it aloud to us.
4. The government team adds excruciating detail to the evaluation criteria, which means that all criteria must be covered in the evaluation.
The way criteria are structured can add significant time, because each criterion must be covered in the evaluation. The general rule of thumb is 3-5 criteria and combine where possible. If you use 8-12 criteria (it’s been done), your team will spend a lot of time and effort addressing them that won’t pay off. Keep your criteria to a minimum and reflective of the discriminators—the issues that actually distinguish which vendor will do the best job. Any criterion that doesn’t advance your decision should be cut. Any criterion that would be nice-to-know but isn’t a discriminator can wait for the kick-off briefing or some future discussion. You want to have a distinguishable winner in a source selection, and that means thinking up front about which criteria will create that distinction.
- The government team adds unnecessary instructions for the vendors’ submission of oral proposals.
When crafting the instructions for submission, the government team should consider which items really must be submitted in writing, as written sections of the proposal will generally take more time to evaluate. Some test plans or implementation plans, for example, may be included in the oral presentation of the technical proposal. Other items might be better left for the winning vendor to submit as a contract deliverable, not as part of the proposal.
Why Oral Proposals Are Often Faster
Now that you know how a source selection using oral proposals (or a sole source, for that matter) can take longer and not be speedy at all, let’s look at why oral proposals can be super fast if you use the techniques in this unofficial guide.
- An oral proposal generally takes fewer vendor resources to prepare. This means that if a vendor prepares a briefing with bullet charts rather than a 100- or 150-page single-spaced proposal, they are saving resources. If the government needs a quick turn with a proposal delivered in less than a month, oral proposals can be a good way to get there in time. In one critical example, this method translated into a sole source vendor in a small but urgent turnaround being able to put together a PowerPoint briefing with a handful of bullet charts over the weekend, present it by phone on Monday morning, get it evaluated in real time during their presentation, and have the contract written that afternoon and sent for signature. Under other circumstances, the team might have used an Undefinitized Contract Action (UCA), but that was a no-go in this case due to an internal approval authority’s dislike for UCAs under any circumstances. This was Plan B, and it was faster than convincing a senior contracting official to issue a UCA.
- Perhaps even more impressive is an oral proposal’s ability to keep a government evaluation team on track. Rather than a technical team of five, or ten, or forty taking a 50-page written technical proposal to different corners of a room or source selection facility and evaluating it on their own schedule, amid call-backs to their home offices and frequent interruptions, the entire team hears the oral proposal at the same time and evaluates the proposal during the briefing, so that 90-95% of the technical evaluation process is completed by the time the vendor leaves the building or hangs up. In essence, the speed of the evaluation is a direct result of managing people as much as managing process.
Source selections have a tendency to become social after people spend weeks of time together. You can’t help it—you are stuck in a room (or several) with the same people every day. Friendships form—or don’t, thanks to the carrot-crunching evaluator across the room who gets on your last nerve. An evaluation room may be quiet for a while, but lunch or family-related conversations will intrude the longer you stay holed up together. All that time together tends not to be 100% focused on the evaluation…and the best of intentions erode. Chatter happens and, soon enough, evaluators who should be evaluating are talking about which adjustable mattress or robotic vacuum cleaner is the best or who needs to be the first politician to go to Mars.
A real-time evaluation of an oral proposal cuts to the core of the matter—evaluating and getting your team back to their regular jobs, already in progress without them. No evaluators want to be stuck in source selection mode longer than necessary, because too-long evaluations can hurt their promotion chances or mean they have to work evenings to keep up with their existing, nobody-else-is-gonna-do-it workloads. Therefore, it benefits everyone to get the team out of source selection as soon as possible, and the oral proposal techniques in this guide can do that.
Better Meeting of the Minds
The other big advantage, besides speed, is that oral proposals can help create the understanding between government and the vendor of exactly what the government is looking for and exactly how the vendor plans to provide the solution. The clarification process is where the magic happens. (If this is a FAR Part 16 source selection, it’s exchanges, not clarifications.) Teams using these techniques will often get more than they expected, at no additional cost.
For example, during the clarification process, the government may ask if the vendor’s approach includes a prototype, because it wasn’t clear in the presentation. The vendor’s eyes will grow wide with realization, followed by, “No, we hadn’t planned on it, but we can give you that, too, for free!” Their contracting personnel may cringe at that, but it usually goes through. Just be sure to have them correct their chart or any documentation to match.
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