If you work in the Government acquisition world, this podcast is for you. (not just for Contracting Officers!)

Kevin and Paul discuss the process that industry uses to review proposals prior to final submittal. Listen and learn why a red team review can make or break a proposal.

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Kevin Jans and Paul Schauer created the Contracting Officer Podcast to help government and industry acquisition professionals understand more about how the other side thinks. As former government Contracting Officers who have also worked on the industry side, Kevin and Paul share their perspectives in support of the podcast’s mission: Make government contracts better, one contract at a time.


Transcript Below

Paul Schauer 0:08
Welcome to The Contracting Officer Podcast. It’s not just for contracting officers. If you’re anywhere in the government acquisition world, this podcast is for you. Today we’re talking proposal reviews from the industry side. In this episode is brought to you by Skyway acquisition, visit Skywayacq.com to learn more. Okay, let’s get started. We have talked about proposal color teams before, specifically in Episode 148. But on many different podcast episodes.

Kevin Jans 0:41
The colors of the of these color teams include Blue Team, Black Hat reviews, pink team, Green Team, gold TYT, there’s a rainbow of them. Each of them has a specific purpose. In this episode, we’re going to dig into the red team specifically. And the red team is the review of the final draft of a proposal before it’s submitted, not the final version, but the final draft and the near final, your last iteration, whatever to call it. And the purpose of the red team is to evaluate the proposal from the evaluators point of view. So it’s a critical review that should not be skipped.

Paul Schauer 1:16
Yeah. Before we get into that, let’s stop and say thanks.

Kevin Jans 1:22
Thanks. This week goes to Sarah Shaffer. Sarah is director of proposal operations for the intelligence sector at ManTech. Sarah is in Herndon, Virginia, which is outside of Washington, DC. I want to thank Sarah for being a longtime supporter of our both our podcast and Skyway acquisition, our company. And I got to meet Sarah in person when I spoke at an industry event in DC recently, and she took the time to come say hi, and introduce me to her team. So it was cool to be able to connect beyond the podcast.

Paul Schauer 1:50
Thanks, Sarah, for helping more people find our podcast. Alright, let’s get into what is a red team or what is a red team review. The red team review, like you said, when we started here, it’s the final review of a final draft of a proposal before you get it submitted. The term comes from the military in Wargaming. And military Wargaming. A red team is a group that that plays the role of the enemy or the competitor to provide feedback from from the enemies perspective, what would they do so you know, red team came back from the days where Americans were the blue team and then the red team were that were the Russians, the USSR back back in those days, I guess it’s still that way now. But all the drill over the cliff. Yeah. Don’t get into politics on a on a contracting podcast. The other color teams, all those rainbow of colors that you mentioned, when we started Kevin, they sort of followed the red team, right? It started out hey, there’s a good idea. Let’s have a red team before we submit the proposal to get the the other side’s point of view on this. But we read teams right at the end, we need to start reviewing it a little earlier. So let’s do a pink team. It’s not quite read. But you know, the proposed is not quite as done. So we’ll do pink. And next thing you know, you got every color there is review in the process.

Kevin Jans 3:14
The red teams are critical review though, because it ensures or improves your chances of winning because the primary purpose just like we talked about, is to get the evaluators point of view. It’s not not the enemy in this scenario, but it’s someone who’s outside the situation. They’re looking at it from from a completely different angle.

Paul Schauer 3:32
Yeah, and for really large proposals. A red team review could be a multi day event with multiple reviewers I’ve been jet. I’ve done a giant conference room with 20 people in there spending two or three days reviewing this proposal. Now some of them don’t review the whole proposal, they just review a single section like past performance or, or the technical solution. But make sure that some read the whole proposal end to end. Which leads us to the the five C’s Kevin’s five C’s of red teaming.

Kevin Jans 4:08
This is the time that someone is going to pick it apart, you’re gonna pick apart the proposal from the evaluators point of view. And like you said, it could be a lot of people, I’ve done them where it’s a one day event, we’ve had multi day events, but somebody needs to look at it. Because you’re gonna make sure that this proposal says everything you wanted to say and more importantly, it says everything that the government wants it to say that the RFP wants it to say like the RFP is your playbook. Right? Well, here’s how you execute your playbook. And you have somebody looking at it to be able to determine whether or not you’ve executed it. Well. Yep. When you’re doing a red team review, there are five things to really focus on, right. Number one, is it compelling? Does it tell the story of how you’re going to solve the problem? Did you answer the question? The RFP is has a list of questions in it. Is it is YOUR Story compelling and how you’re actually going to meet those.

Paul Schauer 5:00
A proposal has to speak to the reader, they have to have to read it and go, Oh, I get this. This makes me happy. This solves my problem I want this makes me happy.

Kevin Jans 5:11
Number two, it needs to be compliant. Do all the sections of the of the final proposal incorporate the list of regulations, all the stuff that’s required in government contract, or their data restrictions that are considered isn’t a proper legal language. It’s all the that not particularly sexy, but important stuff is a lot of the compliance elements.

Paul Schauer 5:30
Yeah, some government solicitations specify actually most specified the font size, and the spacing and all that all those little things can trip you up. So compliance is down to that’s, that’s literally I’s dotted T’s crossed kind of stuff.

Kevin Jans 5:47
The third item is completeness. Is this complete? Is every requirement in the RFP fully addressed? Have you touched all of the elements? Is this and can you include like you talked about the formatting and whatnot, but it’s also did you answer all the questions? Did you submit all of the elements that are needed? Do you have the specific pieces like your executive compensation plan, like all these things that are in there? Is it complete? And you need to be able to ensure that you address any of the gaps in your strategy? Because that’s what the evaluators are looking for is what if they missed what’s incomplete? For example, when we had Skyway when we do a red team review for one of our clients, we build a compliance matrix ourselves, we build our own compliance matrix from the RFP, so that we’re looking at it as an evaluator versus using the one that they may have built that comes from their point of view. I want to make sure it’s complete from my point of view.

Paul Schauer 6:42
And complete, there’s many definitions of complete, but the minimum definition is that every every shall in the solicitation must be addressed every time it says the offer shall the supplier shall you have to address those because those those are the yes nose box checkers in the proposal that is that is did they meet the minimums, right, and make sure it’s easy for the evaluators to find where you’ve addressed all of their shells, and cut and paste your answers into their evaluations. Alright, on to the next thing.

Kevin Jans 7:16
The fourth item is consistency. Are all the sections of the proposal in the correct order? Is it? Is it consistent format? Is that consistent voice? Is it? Is it the same throughout? Is the story consistent? Are you telling it from multiple different angles?

Paul Schauer 7:32
Does your proposal use a consistent tense some people write in past tense some people write in present tense some people written future tense? It gets really confusing to the reader. Right? Does your proposal use action language throughout? Meaning? Does it say things like Skyway reviews every proposal requirement versus Skyway, we’ll review every proposal requirement, those little things make a difference in how the reader perceives it action oriented. And biggest thing was consistency. doesn’t read like it was written by a single author or or or team versus written by committee. Right? It’s so easy when when you write a big proposal to have all these authors come in, and they all have a different way that they say it. And as a reader as an evaluator. It just it it bogs your brain down. Just you understand what it means. But it takes more mental energy to understand what it means because it’s it, it reads differently each time. And I think what it adds to the to the evaluation, what actually takes away from the evaluation is if this team if this company can’t write a proposal that reads straight through like it came from one team, how can I trust that they’re going to deliver what they need to deliver as one team, if they can give the game read the proposal how they’re ever going to build this thing and deliver it.

Kevin Jans 8:59
For me, that consistency issue comes up in what I call the evaluator fatigue, or like you mentioned, it’s just more it takes more brainpower to read it. And what you realize is you’re having to hop back and forth from different voices. And to your point, as a Contracting Officer, I didn’t necessarily realize that the volumes may have been written by different people. But I didn’t feel the fatigue. I remember like, this sounds different. And it’s like you have it’s almost like going from reading one author to another on the same story. You’re like, what what’s happening? The extreme version of that is it like your point, it takes more brainpower, but think in terms of you’re creating fatigue for the evaluator, and that’s that’s not a good feeling. You’re evaluated to have about your proposal.

Paul Schauer 9:36
Exactly. Alright, let’s talk feelings. The last element here.

Kevin Jans 9:42
The last element is to be sure your cake and icing. What I mean by that I was speaking at a conference and somebody asked like, what what are you looking for an evaluator and I said, Don’t be all icing in the cake. Meaning that you’re all shine, you’re all technical jargon. You’re all marketing, blah, blah, but you don’t answer the question. If you don’t tell me how you’re going to do it, you don’t tell a compelling story. And we’ve we’ve all dealt with organizations that once you get an inch below that the shiny outside marketing, you realize, Wow, they’re not really doing this well.

Paul Schauer 10:12
Yeah, there’s nothing here.

Kevin Jans 10:14
I’ve read many proposal that it’s out, there’s a whole lot of shine, but not a whole lot of substances. So the way we think of that is, don’t be all icing and no cake.

Paul Schauer 10:25
Alright, I’ll review these real quick, you may have noticed, they are all all C’s, there’s five C’s, but that’s a little too cute. So we’ll do that. But make sure that your proposal is compelling, compliant, complete, consistent, and cake. There’s cake underneath that ice gotta have some icing on top to make it look delicious. But there’s got to be cake inside.

Kevin Jans 10:48
Here without icing. It looks unfinished. How’s that?

Paul Schauer 10:51
Alright, Kevin, let’s link these to the acquisition and execution time zones. We’re talking pre contract award. So we’re in the acquisition time zones, specifically, the market research zone is where this starts.

Kevin Jans 11:04
The reason this comes up in the market research zone is prior to RFP release, it’s important to decide who’s going to do the red team review. If you wait until you’re ready to do the red team review, you know, two months from now, and hope that the right person is available. That’s a high risk endeavor. You want somebody who is who’s going to be objective and available. This is why our clients tend to lock us up on the calendar when they know they’re going to be writing a proposal for an RFP that drops a month from now to say, Okay, we’re gonna need you for these three days, two months from now. So we’re, we know that we’re available to them so that we can keep this on schedule.

Paul Schauer 11:37
Otherwise, you end up with, well, it’s time for Red team who’s available. Oh, we have to do a red team. So we’ll take anyone and that anyone has no context isn’t the right person to review it. But boy, you did a red team. So congratulations, right? But it wasn’t it wasn’t. Right. That’s how you want to be it. That’s not how you want to be, you will actually want to lock these people in ahead of time. Because when you get to the RFP zone, and you’ve written your proposal, that’s when the red team review is actually accomplished.

Kevin Jans 12:06
Like you said earlier, this could be a one day event, it could be a three day event, this could involve 20 people, which goes back to why it’s so important to schedule it. And the red team is done right before the end of the RFP zone. Having that final review done is something needs to be talking about as you’re building out your schedule for the RFP, which happens during the RFP zone. Oh, and if you’re not familiar with the acquisition time zones, which we just walk through, we cover those in episode 003.

Paul Schauer 12:31
I think we’ve touched on how a red team can make or break your chances to win.

Kevin Jans 12:37
This stems from that human condition that we don’t see the world as it is we see the world as we are. So if we’re evaluating our own project, it’s like it’s like we’re we’re proofreading our homework. The idea of a red team is to have someone else look at it, get it from the evaluators point of view from the way they see it.

Paul Schauer 12:54
If you have people inside your company, do the red team review. It’s better than nothing. But they’re going to be viewing it through the lens of your company that they know too much. Right? Sometimes it’s good to get an outside opinion. We often use people from other divisions, other parts of the company that weren’t so embedded with us so that they saw things a little bit differently. But it’s very helpful to have folks that are reading it like the government would they have no stake in it. They’re just walking in. They understand what what needs to be done here. But they don’t have any opinion walking in about this proposal. They can just read the proposal for what it is from an outsider’s perspective.

Kevin Jans 13:36
You raise a good point where they don’t have any stake in it is if my boss asked me to review his proposal, what am I going to say? Or even if it’s the division head who is related to my organization, you’re not going to be as objective. And that’s the point of the red team review, which is why outside players tend to be much more effective with it.

Paul Schauer 13:57
Let’s talk about why this is important for the government, Kevin.

Kevin Jans 14:00
As a contracting officer, I had no idea that this was a thing. I mean, I figured somebody was reviewing a proposal. Right. But I didn’t realize to what extent now I realized that this may have been the key difference in the proposals I got that were good. And they were they were they were proof read versus the ones that told the story. They hit the high points. They they mapped to what we needed in the RFP. They addressed our concerns, and they told a good story. And they were compliant.

Paul Schauer 14:31
Yeah. And they got deeper than just the the pitch just the marketing piece.

Kevin Jans 14:36
Right. Yeah. The icing versus cake, right. Yeah. I remember the times that I was copying and pasting language from a proposal and I’ll bet you were looking back that those are the ones like when I took their language and put it in the competitive range termination or put it in a source selection decision document. Those proposals I copied the language from probably because they had a very effective red team review.

Paul Schauer 14:57
Yeah, government folks, when you get that purple hosel debrief, especially if you’ve won, and the government is describing to you the strengths and weaknesses of your proposal. When you see a proposal strength, that is a cut and paste from from your proposal, you know, you scored right. That’s that’s the goal is to make it so easy that they go, Yes, this is exactly what I want. industry folks, do not skip the red team review, it will inevitably increase your chances of winning.

Kevin Jans 15:26
Yeah, and ounce of prevention is worth a ton of repair.

Paul Schauer 15:29
Yeah, prevent along the way that you almost you can’t fix it. If you get too late in the process, and you haven’t had to review, you need to open your eyes to the proposal as a whole from the evaluators point of view. Like I said before, sometimes in your red team, people only look at a single section of proposal on the evaluation team, the government may only have folks looking at sections of the proposal, like a technical expert who does who, who really understands the complexities of your solution. But you still need that whole proposal to be consistent so that the folks who only look at one section don’t contradict each other in the in their evaluations. Because your proposal contradicts itself. That one too, you think that only could happen? might happen might be more prevalent in a giant proposal. But even the simplest proposals, if you have multiple authors sometimes get confusing, and maybe not contradictory, but at least not clear. And we should say right now, the definition of big proposal is subjective, right?

Kevin Jans 16:37
If you’re a small company, a $5 million proposal, like most of the ones we help our clients with, that we at Sky, we help our clients with 20 to 50 pages, that that’s a big proposal for a small business, there’s a lot of mapping and planning goes into that. Yeah, there are some clients that they have a 500 page proposal, we’re looking at one little piece up. So big is a relative term, depending on the size of the company. But if it’s a small business set aside, I didn’t realize how much work a 20 page proposal was for a small company.

Paul Schauer 17:06
Don’t sleep on that it’s still hard work to review it and come out the other side. Don’t forget that you don’t want your proposal writers involved in your reviews, right? Like you said before, it’s like grading your own homework, the proposal manager, the program manager, all the all the technical writers, they’re too close to the content to really review things well. Those are the folks that come to the red team debrief or out brief, write that what happens at the end, you do this review, and you don’t just put it on a shelf and make it disappear. The review team actually briefs the proposal team and says, Here’s what we found. And this is the most important step, the results of the outbreak, the debrief, they have to be enforced. Otherwise, there’s a tendency for the writers to resist any changes to this Hemingway novel that they’ve written. Right? The purpose is to make the proposal better and win. So you got to check your ego at the door, and actually incorporate the red team’s comments. And that’s, that’s a whole nother problem, Kevin, because lots of times, the comments themselves contradict each other. And you kind of have to deconflict between the comments of what what’s really the problem here. What are we trying to say? Why did these people have different issues with different with the same sections?

Kevin Jans 18:28
One of the elements, when we’re doing red team reviews is you can disagree with something that’s in there in the posle. But you need to give us an idea of how to fix it absolutely have to say what are we going to fix?

Paul Schauer 18:39
Not just this stinks. But exactly. Perhaps try this wording Instead, write the version of the sentence or the paragraph, as you would like to see it if you’re the government, you know, if you’re the red team reviewer, you want to give them help. So they understand how to get over that next step and make it more clear. Don’t just say, this doesn’t make sense. Great. They thought it made sense the first time just you saying it doesn’t make sense. Right? So you say it doesn’t make sense doesn’t help them understand why it’s confusing. You gotta walk them through it.

Kevin Jans 19:14
Yeah, I like your point about the elements of this need to be enforced. Because think about it. You’re calling her baby ugly. Yep. They’re you’re calling her. You’re saying their turn paper doesn’t make any sense.

Paul Schauer 19:24
Yeah, even though they’ve invited you to look at the baby and judge it right. They’re still going to take offense when you say it’s ugly.

Kevin Jans 19:32
They’re still humans. Yeah.

Paul Schauer 19:35
All right, Kevin, let’s try to wrap this one up in time for the human attention span.

Kevin Jans 19:41
It’s right under 30 minutes. On the government side. One of the reasons that industry needs time to submit an actual proposal is that they need to be able to include a red team review. Yeah, you want them to do a red team review. I didn’t realize that this could take a couple of days. It’s built into the 30 that you gave them. But that’s why the 30 days can matter. Like formal objective thoroughbred team reviews do lead to better proposals. And looking back, I can tell by the way they were written when I was evaluating them. When they had the time to do this, and they took the time to do this, it resulted in better proposal for me. I wish I’d realized when I was competing officer, because I probably would have built in, I don’t know, a little more time. So my RFP releases.

Paul Schauer 20:21
Yeah, when you say that the 30 days, you’re that you’re just talking that’s like the standard. Correct. When you release a solicitation, you say proposals are due in 30 days, could be 15 days could be 45 days could be 60 days, or 90 days for giant complex things. But the red team review is going to be a part of it. And the more complex the proposal, the more pages that you’ve asked for or allowed in the proposal. The more complex red team review is, the longer the recovery time takes. This all goes into it. So when you’re thinking about how long does it take to submit this proposal? Don’t forget that it’s not just writing it, it’s reviewing. Make it easy for your evaluation team to read and understand and evaluate. Our last thing, remember the five elements of red team reviews. The proposal must be compelling, compliant, complete, consistent, and cake.

Kevin Jans 21:16

Paul Schauer 21:20
Alright, Kevin, I’ll talk to you later. I’ll see you Paul. Okay, there we are with another episode of the contracting officer podcast. We have podcast playlists, organized by broad topic area on the website at Skywayacq.com/cop/ for contracting officer podcast. And if you need help with red TV reviews, we’re here for you. Visit Skywayacq.com to learn more. All right, thanks for joining us. We’ll see you next time.