The Best Proposal I Ever Saw

As a young man I often wondered about how societies like the ancient Greeks came up with their legends and myths. I gained some insight into that about a half dozen years after 9/11.

One spring I found myself leading one of several teams supporting a rather large proposed contract which was a business expansion for a client. The decision maker was committee inside a good sized government agency. The contract was to be awarded on a competitive basis.

Proposal was about 500 pages

The competition was a rather involved sequence of proposal writing, meetings, demonstrations and negotiations which went on for several months. At the end of this process, each firm competing was to submit their "Best and Final Offer", ("BAFO" - government agency's acronym choice), and the contract was to be awarded by the committee to the firm with the "best proposal" (on some basis long since forgotten by me).

The contract was large, and the burden of proposal, negotiation and demonstration was commensurately difficult. Going into the final phase, only two companies were competing, my client and a firm from Canada.

To say these Canadians were good at this process is an understatement. They did everything to perfection. During the 2 month process I often felt like we were bringing rubber bands to a gun fight. The battleground was Tallahassee in the peak of the summer.

The Canadian competitor had better political influence, they had better sales staff, they had more attractive and better consultants. While we were dragging our own bags and stuffing ourselves into a single hot van, they were running around town in about three convertibles and looking very cool. They even smelled better than we did. We made mistakes in handling the relationships, they did not. We made mistakes in our presentations, they did not. It was only occasionally that events went well for us during this competition. For the most part it felt like we were just playing outside our league.

The contract was of course awarded to the Canadian firm. The problem was, while they were slick, their proposal was not in the best interest of the government, nor of the people. But that wasn't recognized by the committee the scoring the proposals. We had been beaten.

We made a legal challenge to the contract award. The president of my client company was brilliant in not accepting the defeat. It was business, and it was important, and he was going to fight. There were more trips, meetings, briefs written, and depositions, that dragged this thing out for another three months. By the time it came to trial it was late summer. The government agency was standing behind the Canadian firm, and with their attorneys they were jointly represented. Now that the government agency and the Canadian competitor were legally joined, it was like David fighting Goliath. During discovery I saw the Canadian firm's proposal and it was the best proposal I had ever seen. By comparison our proposal looked clunky and amateurish.

One morning it finally came to trial. We all stuffed into a court room, there was some drama, and the director of this government agency personally arrived, asked to judge to pause the proceedings and he separated us from the other party. The director himself shuttled between rooms to try to negotiate this dispute. He was tough. After about 2 hours of going between rooms he told us that it seemed we had lost, and he was of a mind now to let the trial proceed. But ... he was going to ask each member of our team (four individuals) to give each give him one reason to settle this. Being the junior member, I was asked last.

I cited to the director that the Canadians indeed had the best proposal I had ever seen. That being said, I drew his attention to their intent (in the proposal) to store key government information in Canada. Our proposal called for key information to never leave his jurisdiction. The director was instantly furious (I had a hunch that what the Canadians intended would offend his sense of authority, and I was right). He stormed out of the room.

The president of my client company looked at me, and said "you either won or sunk the case". Five minutes later the director returned and asked if we'd settle for half the contract based upon a division of territory. Of course we settled.

The Canadians lost half the contract, because their proposal (which was the best proposal I had ever seen), had an "Achilles Heel." At that point I understood the ancient Greeks a little bit better. SC

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