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Want A Winning Federal Government Contract Proposal? Beware Consensus

In this new era of teaming agreements to win government contracts, beware the silent proposal killer – consensus. 

Business team hugging and planning a strategy in an office

Jim McCarthy

This guest post is by Jim McCarthy, founder of AOC Key Solutions, Inc. (KSI), a consulting firm to government and government contractors. Since 1983, KSI has helped clients win over $175 billion in federal contracts.  


Consider some common synonyms for the word “consensus’ — agreement, accord, harmony, consent, unanimity, compromise, like-mindedness, concurrence.

What could possibly be wrong with consensus and its synonymous cousins? Who could object?

Unlike the good old days, most government procurements today are pursued by teams of companies: primes, subs, CTAs, LLCs, JVs, small businesses, mentor-protégés, strategic partners, alliances, majority-minority owners or members, fee sharers, or vendors (pre-selected, or selected after award).

Virtually, gone are the days of solitary prime contractors. You know, one company with full responsibility, authority, accountability, risk acceptance, and decision-making for all capture, proposal, and contract operations. One “belly button.” One company with the bulls-eye on its back.

As I describe them in the present day, the various teaming models are so pervasive that current business constructs are commonly accepted, but seldom challenged. Sacred cows they are. Almost canonical. Dogmatic.

Today we find rampant clusters of companies and executives competing with other clusters of companies and executives.

Most often, these competing clusters have one thing in common: governance by consensus management. Management by committee or a group of disparate company executives. Full inclusion. All opinions considered all the time.

The poor capture/proposal managers (in name only) find themselves saddled with the responsibility for winning, but without concomitant authority to make decisions.

Precariously poised, alone, and outnumbered, today’s capture and proposal managers are reduced to the role of facilitators, diplomats, and appeasers.

Denied the ability to make decisions, they are frequently relegated (or relegate themselves) to serving as process mavens and gurus.

It turns out that consensus management when applied to winning government contracts is not your friend, and is probably your enemy.

Let me explain five reasons for why governance by consensus is inimical to your chances of winning, then successfully executing, a government contract.

  1. Consensus Management Produces the Lowest Common Denominator. Group decisions are made according to what idea results in the fewest objections and can be accepted by the maximum number of participants. Take an idea and water it down until no one disagrees and consensus reigns.
  2. Consensus Management Causes Decision-Making to Roil. Group think gives birth to decisions with a half-life of 30 minutes or less before a rival coalition lobbies for different outcomes. No decision is ever final until the team limps towards and crosses the proposal due date.
  3. Consensus Management Breeds Popularity Contests. Decisions are too often made on the basis of who expresses the opinion and his/her “rank,” not on the opinion’s merits. This practice encourages factionalism, food fights and turf grabs. Each cluster jealously guards its own interests at the expense of the collective whole. Each spokesperson seeks to optimize his/her company’s position . Inevitably, this only sub-optimizes the efforts of the entire enterprise.
  4. Consensus Management Stifles Creativity, Innovation, and Risk Taking. It is bad enough that decisions are debated by any and all at the table (“everyone has a voice”). Then decisions are passed along to various color teams (pink, red, blue, etc.). Then maybe to HR. Then maybe to legal. Then to procurement and on to contracts. Finally, the CEO requires that he or she sign off. By the time a neat idea navigates the complex labyrinth, the herd squeezes out all manner of ingenuity, creativity, and thinking outside the box. Committees abhor risks, even prudent ones. Even if risk taking is necessary to winning.
  5. Consensus Management Spawns Timidly. No one is willing to lay it on the line. Fear (or the avoidance thereof) becomes the rule du jour. If everybody in the cluster is in charge, no one is in charge. If everyone helps make the decision, then no single person, even the capture or proposal manager, owns the decision. Second guessing is rampant. The would-be decision-maker learns that the only way to get along is to go along.

So what do I advocate?

Do I think that ideas ought not to be debated? Am I suggesting that review teams should not exist? Should teammates be barred from the proposal war room? Should obvious risks not be avoided? Should capture and proposal managers come only from the ranks of bull-headed autocrats, knee-jerking their way through the process? Can no decision be reconsidered, even in the light of new thinking?

Of course not.

But I do think that capture and proposal managers should have the authority and accountability that comes with the vesting of responsibility.

The clusters have their place, but must rally behind the leader once a decision is made.

Capture managers and proposal managers must focus on one thing, and one thing only: winning—even if someone’s feelings are hurt or ox is gored.

Leaders must lead, not pander to the herd. Courage. Vision. Fortitude. Imagination. Effectiveness. Service to the customer. Ability. And corporate backing and support—these are what it takes to win.

But at present, if a company wins at all, it is in spite of consensus management; not because of it. It is time we rethink how and why decisions to win and execute are made, even amidst a cluster of a team.

What say you?

The Principal and Founder of Artillery, Douglas Burdett is a former artillery officer and Madison Avenue ad man. He also hosts The Marketing Book Podcast, where he interviews authors every week about the latest in modern marketing and sales.

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