Writing and submitting a tender response can be a gruelling process. It can include registering online with the relevant e-tendering portal, completing expressions of interest and pre-qualification questionnaires (PQQs) with all the necessary evidence, reading through the lengthy service specification, completing the invitations to tenders (ITTs), method statements, transition plans and budgets all before you are hopefully invited for an interview and chosen as the preferred bidder.
How do you approach all this? Do you have a defined system or is it a case of make it up as you go along?
For those bidders who navigate these processes regularly, many will seek to use bid management processes to minimise the pain and more importantly improve their chances of success.
The large commercial services companies bid for tenders (some of huge financial value) on a regular basis, as a result they have each fine-tuned their own systems, processes and resources to manage bidding in the best possible way. They will want to minimise risk and maximise their chances of winning.
What is bid management?
Effective bid management is a means to successfully and systematically coordinate your tender submissions, to lead to the best possible bid. You can learn from each bid to streamline your bidding next time around, so that on each occasion you are better prepared and not doing everything from scratch.
- Having a system and processes
- Knowing what is on the horizon
- Having the ‘bidding machine’ in place to deliver your bid strategy
- Knowing when to bid and when not to bid
- Knowing when to withdraw and what your priorities are
- Scheduling when important tenders need completing
- Knowing who completes what and where evidence and past bids are kept
- Managing risk and budgets
- Making the most of different specialisms available to you
When to review your bid management
Bid management is something you can constantly review and improve. You can refine your bid management approaches at any time, but the best time is long before the tender is advertised.
- Look at past bids and see what could have been improved if you had planned out your response in advance.
- Always ask for feedback from bids and use this to improve your future bid management.
- Review any evidence, skills or resource gaps and plan how to fill these (you might decide to buy in extra short term expertise, or use trustees or work with partner organisations to address weaknesses).
- Work on your long term relationships to ‘horizon- scan’ upcoming tenders so you are ready.
How do large commercial companies do it?
The best commercial organisations make strategic decisions on the markets they want to be involved with long before responding to a tender, this can be years rather than months.
From the early stage, they will start to build the key contacts through good relationship management and seek to influence policy debates with their ideas and proposals. A process often known as market shaping. Internal systems will regularly review whether this is working and whether they should continue to invest in shaping the market.
The benefit for bidders of being involved early is knowledge of relevant policy agendas, what the specification is likely to look like and what their own offer will look like. They will have positioned themselves in the market so that commissioners know who they are and what they can offer.
Internally they will have assembled their bid team and will have it planned out how to respond. This process might take years, but when the tender is published they will aim to be ready.
When does it start?
Bid management forms part of the wider long term strategy of horizon scanning, relationship building, market shaping and market positioning. Essentially this means on-going positioning and maintaining of your organisation as the premier provider in the eyes of those who may commission your services, e.g. funders, public sector commissioners and private sector prime contractors.
Start thinking about bid management early so that you are ready internally when the tender is advertised.
One mechanism used to manage decision making throughout the bid management is the use of different and progressive ‘gates’. Only once a criterion has been met is the opportunity allowed to advance to the next gate.
One simple example of this is having an early bid/no bid gate. This can quickly assess the opportunity against your strategic priorities and save you time bidding for tenders that you are either unlikely to win or are off mission. It can be useful to keep a log of the opportunities you have not bid and the reasons why. Any recurring reasons (e.g. lack of bid writing time) can then be evaluated and possibly resolved in due course (e.g. invest in an external bid writer).
Who is in your bid team? Does your organisation have a Bid Director, Bid Manager, Bid Co-Ordinator, Commercial Lead, Financial Lead, Operational Lead, Bid Writer, and Subject Matter Expert?
These positions and more would be present in many large commercial organisations’ bid team. For most VCSE organisations, it is not practical to think you will have all these people. However you might have people who carry out these sorts of roles. Indeed it might be mostly the same person. One role you will have (whether you call it that or not) is a Bid Manager who coordinates the bid response and is ultimately responsible and accountable for it.
The different roles bring their own unique insight and expertise. As a VCSE organisation with a smaller workforce you might be able to draw on expertise from your board, support organisations or other contacts. The key thing is gaining different perspectives, expertise and a fresh pair of eyes to keep you on track.
Managing the bid
Once the bid comes out, in a commercial organisation the bid manager will co-ordinate the bidding across the organisation, this again could be through a series of different gates, where each section of the bid writing is cleared through a different gate process. This will include working with a number of different colleagues from specialist areas and departments across the commercial organisation such as finance, legal, risk, IT, etc. If this is a large tender, there could be a lot of different people with their own specialisms who are drawn on throughout the bidding process. Ideally the Bid Manager will have known in advance when the tender was coming out and will have planned out in detail how the response will be managed.
Careful version control, an agreed style guide and a log of assumptions that are made about the working environment can help to overcome problems.
Polishing the bid
Once the bid sections have been collated it will need to be checked. One of the prime contractors on the masterclasses uses a process they call the black hat stage. The draft tender response is sent off to be reviewed by a completely different department who don a virtual black hat to look at the bid through a cautious, defensive and critical lens to highlight weaknesses. This is intended to be non-personal but constructive criticism to improve the bid.
Getting others to reviewing a draft submission can be really helpful to make sure it meets the specification and points available, answers the questions concisely, is formatted correctly and spell checked and that everything that should be is complete.
Learning for next time
Even if you win the bid, the bid manager should look to learn from each bid and improve processes for subsequent bids. Each bid should improve your knowledge of how to tender successfully, what skills and resources you need and how the world of tendering works.
John Dawson, NAVCA