Why is capture so hard?
Updated: Nov 21, 2020
The accepted best practices and opinion pieces on capture* are unhelpful, to say the least. "Follow Our 8 Steps to Capture Success and Win More!" "Use Our Software to Qualify Deals and Win More!" "The Key to Capture is a Kick Off and Winning More!"...
I’ve seen great Bid Managers inexplicably fail when thrown into capture because they’ve read the book, followed the 8 Steps, used the software, and understandably think that’s it. You can have the badge and still be terrible at delivering. Learning the lego blocks of a Bidder Comparison Matrix and (kill me now) Win Themes to Emphasise Your Strengths and Minimise Your Weaknesses do not mean you will get the outcome you need in the real world.
Read or hear about capture and you get lots of advice about what to do (Start Early! - OMG really? I thought I'd start late...) but rarely anything of use about how you approach the whole thing. I’m in danger of metaphorically waving my hands around, but it’s an ephemeral notion that defies the usual descriptions - it’s all soft skills and a mindset.
It hit me reading a McKinsey article on agile organisations (don’t ask - I’m only mentioning it’s McKinsey because I’m about to steal from it) - capture is a mix of the dynamic and the structured, and you need both. Yet we only seem to talk about the structured bits. I’ve fallen into that trap before.
The model posits that you want the best bits of start-up mentality and some of the stability from bureaucracy, to make a truly agile** organisation.
My badly drawn interpretation above is trying to show that balance of structured and dynamic in the bidding world.
Business Development wants to be really dynamic (the speed to react to a whisper of opportunity, the flexibility to jump on new contacts and information as they arise, the adaptation to play golf or have lunch with clients as the need arises) with the minimum of structure (a CRM, an expense account and a KPI or two). They are the start-ups building relationships and being all creative.
Once that RFP lands you want the structure and order of the proposal process to kick in so you get to the submission on time despite the odd wheel falling off along the way. Once the customer invitation arrives there is an inevitability about it all that takes over, and you need the efficiency and reliability of structure and stability.
With capture, you want some of the structure so you can secure a contract in the end rather than just have fun pondering strategies, but allow for fluidity and the iteration of the process. How much time you spend on each activity, what tools you use, what your focus is, are all up to you. You never know what you may uncover and when everything will just change on you. That’s the fun of it that demands agility.
We need structure to ensure we efficiently create deliverables and get to decisions:
a stated purpose for the capture work - stick a pin in the map so everyone knows what you're aiming for
structured qualification decisions and governance across all the opportunities for organisational coherence
governance when you need it, with rapid iterations allowed and expected when the opportunity evolves, and the right people making the right decisions at the right level
clarity of strategy for others - write that capture plan to give to the rest of the team, and use standardised tools and approaches for efficiency without being a slave to them
the right tools & tech to support collaboration and frictionless delivery without getting in the way (don’t let your CRM run you)
clear responsibilities each time (you will do this by then, please) but no hierarchy.
If capture is the art of asking the right questions, then this is what gives you speed, responsiveness, and adaptation to do so:
acceptance of gaps in knowledge and making the decision anyway
scanning the horizon and looking for the changes you know will come
no hierarchy in the team or absolute roles, and the team is an evolving network of people you have to identify as appropriate to the particular task at a particular time on a particular opportunity aligned with organisational priorities
decision making at the edges, not the centre - the people working on the deal are empowered to make decisions on what they are doing because they have the best information
continuous learning and adaptation like a huge amoeba exploring new waters - each time you learn something new it has to be assessed and assimilated or rejected rapidly, and the direction may change as a result
your own judgment on what is the right amount of intelligence gathering and analysis - how long, what about, and crucially when to stop
what stakeholder management you do with whom will be different every time
deciding the strategy - and I don’t mean having a workshop, that’s just one tool you have to decide how and when to use
endless curiosity balanced by a desire to win.
Your organisation needs to understand this fluidity as well or you will be an agile thing in a prison cell of bureaucracy. I think this is often why we fail - we’re too busy filling out forms and plans to satisfy the internal machine that is convinced that capture is merely a capture plan.
So how do we fix our approach to capture?
The first step is for the whole organisation to embrace the concept that capture is a mix of the dynamic and the structural, and the art is getting the balance right each time.
We need to hone our fluid skills:
I’m sorry kids, but experience is the only way to really know what’s important for a particular opportunity, and that is what underpins good analysis and the ability to make a good decision without all the information - you need to put the time in. Age won’t necessarily make you good at it, but inexperience will definitely make you fail more often
Learn to listen with an open mind and empathise - it will make you a better human as well. You need the flexibility of thinking to view the world from the customer and competitor eyes interchangeably, and to see yourself without the usual self-serving bias
Develop an understanding of how to influence and the art of emergent leadership (that’s a whole other blog), and how to build the right network of people.
Let’s also think of a better set of structural stuff that enables the dynamic because what we have now needs so desperately to evolve.
* I hate the name ‘capture’. I get it, but it’s not Ronseal enough for me. 'Opportunity management' is ok, but vague. 'Sales' works in the right organisation, but smacks of flogging product. Help me find something better?
** I’m sorry to use the ‘a’ word. I know it’s trendy to try to slap the concept onto the bidding world like a bunch of buzzword kleptomaniacs, but I’m using it in the dictionary definition way, honest.