Have I seen this before

A few years back I got a call from a software firm I had done work with. A large NGO has asked them about a consulting project need. This was outside the software firm’s expertise and they wanted to know if I was interesting in talking with the NGO about their problem.

Later that afternoon I was on the phone with Bobby, who was the internal project manager at the NGO. They were looking for help on updating their strategy for knowledge management and were still looking for more bidders. The only problem was that it was now Wednesday and final bids were due by close of business on Friday.

Bobby sent me a copy of the RFP and we arranged for a phone conference for Thursday morning. I started reading and outlining some questions and ideas. We spoke the next morning at length and I spent the remainder of the day and Thursday evening cranking out a basic letter proposal. It was a pretty vanilla proposal given the tight timeframe; Understanding of the Situation, Core Lessons/Current Best Practices, Approach to the Work, Credentials, Estimated Fees.

The tricky part was settling on a bid. I hadn’t worked with this organization before, I had no idea who else was bidding, and no sense for the budget. The only thing I could fall back on was something I had learned from the late Gerry Weinberg; something he called the “principle of least regret”. Set the price so that you feel okay win or lose. Given all the uncertainties, I doubled my estimate and sent in my bid before the Friday deadline.

The following Tuesday morning, I get a call from Bobby. Mine is the winning proposal. How soon can I start.

Maybe I could have bid higher. Not a problem. I was happy with the result even if I had underbid.

Here’s the curious thing. Midway through the project, I had a chance to debrief one of the decision makers who had awarded the work to me. I was the high bidder. Enough so, in fact, that the decision had to be bounced up a couple of levels in the bureaucracy to get approval to exceed the planned budget.

Mine was the only proposal that had devoted any time and energy to demonstrating an understanding of the client’s situation.

Fundamentally, I was saved by my own habits, my patterns of practice. It would never occur to me write a proposal that started anywhere other than “understanding of the problem.”

There is constant pressure to get on with it. To trot out an answer before you’ve finished listening to the question. Speed is so often rewarded that learning when to move slow takes a conscious act of will. It is as simple and as difficult as transforming

“I have seen this before” to “Have I seen this┬ábefore?”.