Beware the dangers of groupthink

Proposal color team reviews don't work because reviewers are too susceptible to the dangers of groupthink.

Proposal color team reviews don’t work.

Why? In many cases, proposal reviewers make two critical mistakes:

  1. They read the proposal as if it was a novel, instead of scoring and rating it according to the evaluation criteria.
  2. They get tired of arguing about their comments, so they come to consensus—which really means they succumb to groupthink.

These mistakes often result in a proposal that not only fails to offer a value proposition rich in discriminating strengths, but in some cases is non-compliant.

Your proposal is not a novel

Internal color team reviewers often derail your win because they don’t fully understand how the government evaluates and scores the proposal. They think the proposal should tell a story, and they comment on the merits of that story.

In reality, government evaluators have a scoresheet to complete based solely on evaluation factors and subfactors in order of importance. They use the scoresheet to look for Strengths, Weaknesses, Deficiencies, and Risks related to the evaluation factors. An individual evaluator may be assigned only one factor, so they do not read the proposal as an entertaining story. They read it more like an encyclopedia to look up information they need to complete the scoresheet.

If an evaluator cannot find an item listed on the scoresheet, they score it as a Weakness or Deficiency, which often equates to an unacceptable instance of non-compliance. In the recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) decision regarding Deloitte Consulting, LLC, the protestor argued that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) unreasonably concluded that its proposal was unacceptable and disqualified it from the competition.

GAO denied the protest for a very sound reason. The resume submitted for enterprise solutions architect was unacceptable because it did not meet the basic requirements for the position as clearly stated in the solicitation.

Although the company failed to provide adequate proof of years of experience, they protested that the resume was acceptable. GAO countered: “It is a vendor’s responsibility to submit an adequately written quotation that establishes its technical capability and the merits of its proposed approach, and allows for meaningful review by the procuring agency in accordance with the evaluation terms of the solicitation.”

Don’t confuse consensus with groupthink

I read the protest decision and briefly wondered how a contractor could fail such a basic compliance standard. And then I imagined the color team reviewers agreeing that yes, the general experience detailed on the submitted resume and described in their compliance matrix did indeed equate to the specific experience required in the solicitation.

Maybe they were tired. Maybe their recruiter could not come up with an adequate resume. Maybe they thought the story they spun in the proposal would cover up the lack of compliance. Most likely they succumbed to groupthink. Together, they rationalized that the resume met requirements.

Reading the protest decision coincided with one of our clients reaching out to ask for feedback. Their multiple award contract proposal was eliminated for non-compliance, and they wanted our input as to whether the government’s determination was reasonable. In this case, the RFP asked for rates for “all labor categories”. Yet, the company submitted a pricing spreadsheet that did not include all labor rates.

The company’s finance team and price proposal reviewers agreed that since they did not plan to bid on task orders for certain labor categories, they did not need to submit rates for those positions. After internal deliberations during several color team reviews, they all agreed with this rationale.

Unfortunately, this contractor had not asked an independent reviewer to review the spreadsheet for compliance. After months spent preparing a complex proposal, they lost because of a mistake that 1) we can all make, but 2) a fresh pair of eyes would have caught. The government’s determination of non-compliance was justified. The company lost the bid and an entire pipeline of future task order work to be procured under the MAC vehicle.

What’s the solution?

According to Harvard Business Review research, three strategies for avoiding groupthink are 1) assemble diverse teams, 2) focus on roles, and 3) encourage passionate champions. All three of these apply to improving your proposal reviews.

Assemble diverse teams: The government evaluator may or may not be familiar with your solution. Therefore, your review team needs to consist of people who know the work, people who know the customer, and people who know nothing. All reviewers should be able to read and understand your offering. If they can’t, then the proposal may be poorly written, non-compliant, and/or non-compelling.

Focus on roles: Assigning clear roles makes reviewers more responsible and responsive. If the color team reviewer knows they have a discrete role such as compliance reviewer, mock government source selection official assigned to a specific evaluation factor, devil’s advocate, risk adverse evaluator, etc., then the resulting comments, scores, and ratings are much more valuable. With discrete roles, review teams avoid groupthink because each person has a different assignment.

Encourage passionate champions: Sometimes it’s hard to remain passionate after several proposal extensions and amendments, long workdays and nights, and multiple reviews. Yes, we must work as a team, but don’t underestimate the “power of one.” Bringing in an outside consultant deeply experienced in proposal reviews allows that person to champion proposal fixes mapped to proven quality measures and scoring based on evaluation factors. Often, teams will listen and respond to the findings of an outside reviewer much more readily.

Color team reviews are by nature collaborations. However, too often they actually derail the win because reviewers fall prey to groupthink. A minor mistake can then turn into a major compliance issue, thus wasting time, money, and energy on a losing bid that could have been a winner. Cost-effective investing in an outside reviewer helps the team refocus, correct errors, improve articulation of the value proposition, and champion a win.