Responding to Requests for Proposals for Learning Projects

We get lots and lots of proposal requests from current and prospective clients…and I’ve been writing a ton of proposals lately. Some are much easier to write than others, and the ease/difficulty is 100% dependent on the quality of the request.

Some of the RFPs – requests for proposals – we receive are very good requests with detailed information; others give us the opportunity to do lots of follow-up. We find ourselves asking a lot of questions as we attempt to accurately pinpoint the scope of the project and provide concept, price, and time line information. We end up spending quite a bit of time formulating questions and then talking these questions through with the client. I often wonder how many hours a client might save himself or herself if their RFP had been put together a bit more carefully. I do recognize the difficulty of communicating clearly about a project in which you’ve probably been immersed for a long while. It comes difficult to discern what’s obvious -and what needs to be explicitly explained for a vendor to understand your needs.

If you are someone who outsources work to vendors, you can make your job easier – and your vendors’ job easier by assembling a solid RFP – or request for proposal. The information that follows is straight from a document we created titled, “Creating a Good RFP.” We provide it free-of-charge to customers who don’t have any experience creating RFPs…or who’ve provided us with RFPs in the past that lead to lengthy Q&A sessions to understand what they want/need. Most of them tell us it’s a really helpful guideline.

Company and Logistical Information

Sounds stupid, but a lot of companies forget to put basic contact information in their proposal. Be sure to include:

  • Company name and address
  • The name and contact information for the person making the request. If YOU aren’t the one to answer questions, then please include the name/contact info for the person who is supposed to answer questions.
  • Any parameters we need to follow in submitting questions or requesting additional info.
  • The due date of the response. (Please make this very clear and easy to find!!!)
  • The anticipated decision date and how you will communicate this decision.

    Project Information

    • Description of your project. Tell us what the project is and who it is intended for: “We need a training course on XYZ developed for XYZ audiences.” Or…”We need help in analyzing what we DO need because we have no idea.” (I’m being a bit sarcastic here, but truly, so many customers aren’t really sure what they do need – and we end up looping back to do some needs assessment before we can ever move forward. They jump to solution before they’ve fully thought about what the problem truly is.)
    • Give us background on your intended audiences – what do they already know? Where are they located? What entry-level attitudes or behaviors should be considered as we bid the project? What is their education level and language skills? What unique traits should we consider? (e.g. The need to eventually  translate a finished solution into multiple languages is something that’s nice to know when we bid the project since it affects the way we might program a solution. This, in turn, affects time required.)
    • List of deliverables and services you need. Services may include needs analysis, curriculum or course design, graphic design, performance analysis, etc. Deliverables might competency model, analysis report, curriculum design, course design, course materials, e-learning course, webinar, job aids, etc. If you don’t know what deliverables you want, we’ll have a very hard time giving you a price. When you are really unsure of what the deliverables should be….strongly consider requesting support for analysis and design – with no other deliverables. Once analysis and design work have happened, you can request a proposal that focuses exclusively on development and testing of your solution.
    • Anticipated project time line that factors in the review cycles required on the project. Here is where many clients stumble a bit. They request a completion date that cannot logistically be accomplished ON THEIR END.
    • Description of the available resources. This includes source content and subject matter experts. Depending on the project, it may include other, very specific resources as well.  Remember: “source content” is only source content if it exists on hard copy or electronic copy somewhere. Telling a vendor you have all the content…and then surprising them in the kickoff with an intro to a SME who is going to tell them everything they need to know is NOT good.

    Budgetary Constraints or Timeline Constraints

    Please, please don’t withhold budget information because you worry that the vendor will use every penny of what’s available to spend. The worst scenarios are when someone only has $10K to spend – and describes a project that clearly requires $50K to produce.  You are NOT going to get audio, complex Flash animation, and a full-branching scenario in 4 weeks and for less than $10K.

    If you can give budget parameters or expectations upfront, we can help guide you and tell you what features/functionality/services are typically part of a $10K, $20K, $50K, or $100K solution. We can also probe for the outcomes you’re trying to achieve. If you merely want to share information, you really don’t need to spend $50K on an e-course to communicate new policies. Ethical vendors will point this out – and save you money.

    Evaluation Criteria

    Let’s be honest here. There’s always one or two things that are MOST important to you. Sometimes it’s your timeline. You need something fast…and your top evaluation criteria will be how well a vendor can meet your timeline. Other times, you have a high-profile project and what you’ll value most is a vendor who can truly partner with you in thinking through needs and optimal solutions, and then produce a high-quality, creative solution.

    Though some vendors will tell you it’s possible to do good, fast, and cheap all together…that’s relative. We can be two of those three things, but most vendors cannot be all of those things. Simply letting the vendor know which two are most important to you can help you get responses that are useful to you. We’ve had some terrific honest discussions with clients – and declined to respond – when we’ve discovered their top priority is not one we feel we can honor. (We just had a client who wanted us to bid a project two ways: 2) super-fast with lowered quality standards and 2) high-quality with lengthened timeline.)  After considering what “super-fast” would mean (just about absolutely killing everyone on the project in order to complete it in four weeks), we replied back that we felt we could only bid on Option 2. The client was fine with this…and the evaluators can go with what’s most important to them.


    The best projects happen when there is a high level of trust and good communication exchange throughout the proposal process. We start consulting from the moment we receive a proposal so we make sure our response truly addresses the needs the client has – which often are nowhere on their RFP.

    Clients who have a rock-solid RFP help themselves. They get responses that better match their vision. They also minimize the risk of the project scope expanding on them because it wasn’t fully thought through at the RFP stage.

    I welcome any other tips folks have on what makes a great RFP. Any war stories can also be shared and enjoyed. I suspect most of us have at least one!

    My Subject Matter Expert Toolkit

    I recently presented a case study at the central Indiana ASTD fall conference. The focus of the case study was on using e-learning templates to facilitate rapid design. But as part of the presentation, I talked about how we managed a large group of SMEs (over 40 total) on the project. The room became alive and there were so many questions and comments I had to halt the discussion. I had obviously hit a hot topic!

    Working with SMEs can be a challenging part of the design and development of learning solutions – but it doesn’t have to be! Here are my tips for working successfully with subject matter experts:

    1. Get everyone in the same room (physically or virtually) to kickoff the project. Even if the SMEs will be working on different phases or aspects of the project, it is best for them to hear the same message, and for them to raise questions or issues at this meeting for all to hear. I recently did this for a project and it became clear after about an hour in that the SMEs weren’t all on the same page regarding the job function, much less how to teach it. Uncovering this issue early allowed us to avoid massive rework down the road.

    2. Give SMEs a clear job description with detailed authority parameters. One of the frustrations we often have with SMEs is that they either don’t do what we want them to, or they overstep what we thought their boundaries were. Either way, this problem can be mitigated by being very clear up front what the job is. And as learning professionals, we need to remember that the project isn’t the SME’s full time job – we have a responsibility to educate them! I recommend providing an actual written job description. The one I use is about two pages and includes:

    • Course development phases and SME responsibilities at each phase (how much time should they set aside to review a design document? What kinds of edits do we expect at alpha vs beta versions of the course? etc.)
    • Who’s responsible for scheduling meetings.
    • Rules for deadline days (I meet my deadlines, you need to meet your deadlines. What time is “end of day”?, etc.)
    • How should they share source content (collaboration space, email, etc.)? Who needs to receive source content?
    • Team member roles and responsibilities.
    • What’s already been decided by stakeholders that outrank the SMEs. If your stakeholder has already told you what the objectives have to be, be honest about that. Don’t let the SMEs work under the impression that they have more power than they actually do. It just leads to frustration for everyone down the road.

    3. Make sure that SMEs understand the domino effect of their decisions. One of the biggest challenges is getting SMEs to meet deadlines to avoid project delays. The first thing we need to do as project managers is to ensure that the deadlines we set are actually realistic. And I mean realistic. Even if the SME says that he/she can meet a deadline, usually you can tell when that’s not 100% accurate. You might need to call shenanigans if you see any of these signs:

    • Shifty eyes. If they can’t look you in the eye when they agree to a 24 hour review time, don’t hold your breath.
    • Avoidance. When they see you in the hall, they immediately remember an important errand on the other side of the building.
    • Meetings start by the SME telling you how they have become good friends with the cleaning crew during their evening work sessions.

    Once you’ve determined that the deadlines are realistic, then have honest conversations when SMEs want to make changes and additions to the solution or change the timeframe. Be sure they understand what that means for other courses, the budget of the project, and the overall quality of the project. By nature, the SME often has a narrower focus than we do because they are the expert. Part of our job is to help them see the forest for the trees and consider all options before making a decision.

    4. Keep SMEs updated. At BLP, we often use a weekly/biweekly status report to communicate how things are going with the project. It’s just an excel spreadsheet that lists the project phases, who’s involved, where things are, and what’s coming up next. For SMEs, the most powerful part of the report is the icons we use to indicate status. It’s a great visual way for them to see our perception of the project. We use icons to indicate:

    • Things are great!
    • SME hasn’t been responsive.
    • Phase needs immediate attention.
    • We have some concerns/cautions.

    I hope these tips were helpful! What do you to make the devleopment process a happy one for both you and your SMEs?

    Managing Subject Matter Experts and Using Them as Learning Developers

    I have a colleague who once created a presentation called “Herding Cats: Working with SMEs.” Needless to say, her viewpoint on the value of SMEs was influenced by some negative experiences.

    Cats have often been used to describe SMEs - independent and impossible to control...but still lovable.

    Cats have often been used to describe SMEs - independent and impossible to control...but still lovable.

    Can subject matter experts (aka SMEs) make good developers? How do you manage them and keep them focused? Can you shift them from a content (input) focus to an outcome focus? How do you keep them from derailing your project by overloading you with content? If a SME doesn’t know anything about instructional design, how can you involve them in designing a learning solution? What about deadlines…how do you hold them accountable?

    In our experience, which spans a lot of years, subject matter experts are critical to most of our projects’ successes. Conversely, they can also become the Achilles’ heel that hinders success or makes a project take far longer than it should to complete. How to you ensure the former scenario and prevent the latter one?

    That’s what our February blog posts are about. Over the next four weeks, we’ll share our tips and tricks for maximizing the relationship with SMEs. Specifically, we plan to talk about:

    • Managing expectations between the SME and the designer/developers and techniques for clarifying roles/responsibilities.
    • Tools that can make it easier for SMEs to function as developers – and designers.
    • Techniques that make it easier to hold SMEs accountable for delivering what they say they will deliver.
    • How to speak the language of the SME rather than trying to teach the language of learning design to the SME.

    We welcome your thoughts and ideas as well. If you’ve identified a great strategy or technique for partnering with SMEs, share it! If you have a question or a challenge, let us know that too and we’ll try to address it here.

    Also look for a couple interesting interviews with SMEs. While we view them in a particular light, it’s always good to view the world from their stance as well.

    Vendor-Client Relationships: A few challenges

    Those readers who are either 1) vendors or 2) clients who hire the services of vendors may see themselves in this video. I think it can offer a humorous way to deflect requests from clients that are not what vendors would consider fair or reasonable: 1) cutting the price because the price doesn’t meet the client’s budget (often determined BEFORE they ever talked with the vendor about what something would realistically cost; 2) Coming in with a pre-defined budget and wanting the vendor to give services away for free – with the promise of lots of future business in exchange for giving away services the first time; 3) Asking for lots of things throughout the project – and then trying to avoid having to pay the full cost of those tings.

    What do you think? And…who did you want to share this with in hopes that they might recognize themselves – and see your frustration –  in it? Interesting conversation starter!

    New Tool – External Brain

    Thank you, Cammy Bean for introducing me to this great tool! Evernote is a program that bills itself as your way to remember everything. So far, I agree! It allows you to insert screen captures, websites, documents, and images. I can even upload items from my iPhone. 

    I’ve only been testing the program for a few days, but I’ve found myself loving it’s search capablility. It even reads my horrible handwritting! So suddenly my two weekly to-do list that I used to post to Outlook, and of course, my old-fashioned white board, are now in one place. All I had to do was take a picture of the white board with my phone and upload to my site. And I copied the list from the desktop right over into the program. When I search for “to-do,” both lists appear! AMAZING!

    Evernote promotes their ability to house your business cards electronically, which seems like a great feature I need to try. I know this tool will help me with project management and just keeping some of the day-to-day information archived for easy search and retrieval. Check it out and let me know what you think.

    The invisible skills in project management

    Hilary Topper’s blog post had a great little book review in it today on a book called, “All I know about business I learned at McDonald’s.” She listed the “tips to success” employed by leaders at McDonald’s, and, to me, they  also represent an excellent list of the “invisible skills” that make project managers go from good to great.

    If you are a project manager you may think your job focuses on managing all the tasks associated with a project completed. Good project managers can do a fantastic job of managing the tasks at hand on a learning project; great project managers also display a set of less tangible, but equally important, traits and skills. If you are tasked with managing the development of a training initiative – or any other kind of initiatve, for that matter –  keep these things in mind:

    • Honesty and Integrity – At all times, stellar PMs communicate an honest and ethical message to their internal team and to the customer.
    • Relationships – Good project managers manage tasks well; great project managers manage tasks AND relationships. They take time to build and nurture the relationships within the team and with the client.
    • Standards – Great project managers define standards and processes at the start of the project and hold their team accountable for following them.
    • Lead by Example – The best project managers can model what they want to see from their team.
    • Courage– This one is HUGE. Sometimes, you have to deliver a message that either your team or your client won’t be happy with. It takes a lot of courage to tell a customer bad news – or to disagree with a customer who is flat-out wrong and making a poor decision.
    • Communication – This is the life-blood of any project. The project may successfully conclude in spite of poor communication, but the process will have been a nightmare for everyone.
    • Recognition – The absolute best project managers always recognize the positive efforts of their team as well as the results the team produces. They are quick to pass along praise given by a happy client…and they have a true appreciation (which they express) for the talents and skills of their team.

    Topper’s blog was intended for business leaders. Given the complex projects that my staff members do…and what clients say they love about our project managers…this list seemed applicable for beyond business leaders. It’s good to have such a list because most PM resources tend to focus on being stellar at the task management.

    Case in point: check out these sites if you want help being a better tactical manager…but don’t ever, ever forget about the invisible skills listed above.

    • The Project Manger podcast – a series of audio podcasts designed as a online performance support tool for PMs.
    • Project Management Institute – you have to belong to get thebest stuff, but this is a great resource – especially for those seeking official certification as project managers.