With insights and quotes from Mairi Morrison.
Mairi is a Proposal Manager at Strategic Proposals in the UK. She has 17 years of experience in the proposal industry, including global and international proposals across a variety of industries. Mairi’s passion for proposals covers the whole lifecycle of bidding, from pre-engagement through to submission, debrief and presentation stages.
Mairi is a regular presenter at leading industry conferences. She’s also a past winner of the most prestigious award in the UK bid and proposal profession – APMP UK’s Award for Bid Excellence.
The harsh truth is that stress and proposals go hand in hand. It's an issue inherent in the industry: where there are high stakes and important deadlines, there's bound to be stress.
We don't want to downplay or gloss over this issue. Stress can be debilitating. It can lead to serious issues like burnout, anxiety or depression. It's also far too rampant in proposal management, and unfortunately, the causes of that stress aren't going away anytime soon.
That doesn't mean we should take stress as a given. Mental health and wellbeing within the bid and proposal industry is a pressing topic; it must be a priority. We need to acknowledge the seriousness of this issue within our industry, and come together to address it by improving the factors we can control.
Mairi Morrison specializes in this topic. Her experiences have shaped her perspective on stress in proposal management, and they paint a too-common picture. She's since dedicated much of her time to redressing and finding solutions for this issue, learning from her own resilience and pushing for increased awareness and support for stress management.
Keep in mind that Mairi's story touches on some difficult topics around mental health, but it's nonetheless a story of responding to mental health needs with hope.
She begins with her earliest days writing proposals:
"Because I was quite new to [the proposal industry], I just did all the work anyway. But the more work you do, the more you get given. [It was] a small company — couldn't really afford to get another bid monitor on board. They couldn't justify it. So I just kept on doing the work and doing the work. And then I think after about a year and a half, I took a bit of a break down."
Mairi shares openly that this stress has had a significant impact on her, resulting in depression at times. But she stayed in the industry, and she began to look for solutions.
"I continued working, but I spent the next year or so trying to work out how to deal with my stress and looking at when I was getting stressed, why I was getting stressed and what I could do to sort it....
You know, as you get older, you've gone through a lot of things, so you learn how to deal with things. So I've always been interested in helping people through things that I've experienced as well."
This interest deepend and became personally poignant as she saw her peers struggle with stress.
"In my 17 years in the proposal industry, obviously I've come across a lot of stress....
At our national APMP [Association of Proposal Management Professionals] conference last year in October, a lot of the sessions there were about mental health and wellbeing. There was a guy that I knew, work wise, who talked about his experiences with stress. I was presenting as well, and he helped me a lot, gave me moral support.
And then just before Christmas, he took his own life.
I was quite affected by it. Also, at the same time, I've been looking at ways to help other people. So it basically gave me a kick to do something."
Mairi became a trained crisis volunteer and now works regularly to assist those with suicidal thoughts. She also wanted to bring that knowledge, empathy and drive for change back to her own industry to address the role of stress in proposals. She recently conducted a survey to shed light on the realities those in the industry face.
Here are some preliminary results:
The takeaway is that something needs to change. In fact, she found that roughly 85% of respondents would like to see solutions set up within the proposal industry to help address and manage stress.
Stress clearly lies just beneath the surface when it comes to proposals. After all, proposals are inherently stressful. You're putting in a bid against multiple others, coordinating with various groups; above all, the stakes are high, and you can't miss deadlines. This stress takes a severe toll on people, and the repercussions are felt throughout the industry: too many people who are great at their jobs end up leaving as a result of stress.
Beyond the inherent pressure of proposals, numerous organizations have bid systems in place that result in excess stress. Many companies have an inefficient process that results in a flurry of activity right before the deadline — one survey respondent reported that they had worked three days and nights with no break before a deadline, and then quit the next day.
As Mairi puts it, the job itself won't change — so the industry response and the people themselves need to adapt instead. The industry is slowly beginning to shift, as reflected by the fact that more conferences feature speakers who discuss stress like Mairi. Everyone is becoming aware that stress is a problem, but so far, we've only begun to identify some concrete ways to respond to that stress.
A major way that companies can support workers is by setting up robust processes to better manage proposal creation. For instance, organizations can set a firm timeline: one day to read the RFP, a kickoff meeting the next day, meetings with subject matter experts immediately after and four days to pull a first initial draft together.
Consultants like Mairi can help by implementing processes that spread out the action, with stages like creating executive summaries of the proposal before writing begins to better plan and balance workloads. Similarly, tools like proposal management software can significantly reduce manual work and improve collaboration, enabling managers to take more time for the proposal itself.
Mairi also suggests putting more effort into pre-engagement work. For example, if the sales team can start to anticipate RFPs coming in from their pipeline, they can talk to the customer before it comes in. The proposal team can then start working on an outline of the story they want to tell.
There should also be plenty of coordination and teamwork from the beginning — for example, salespeople and tech people should collaborate rather than build separate solutions that don't match. That coordination should reach to all levels of the company, with more buy-in from stakeholders on the importance of an efficient proposal process. This helps grease the wheels at every level, such as more responsiveness from SMEs.
Some companies have already begun to bring in external solutions. Work-life balance workshops are becoming more common, with wellness or wellbeing experts brought in to speak to proposal teams.
Mairi approves of these measures, but notes that more can be done. More than anything, she says, proposal professionals need to be able to talk to someone they can trust, whether that's a manager or a wellness expert who specializes in the proposal industry and can truly speak to the issues workers face. People need a resource they can turn to when they get overwhelmed, without fearing backlash either personally or professionally. Broadly speaking, there needs to be more understanding and support.
It's not only crucial that workers are happy, but that companies recognize that work-life balance must be a priority. It's so important to acknowledge that proposal workers can be overloaded, and without change toward nurturing and investing in those people, experienced professionals will walk out the door.
Despite the intensity of this issue, Mairi is hopeful and optimistic about positive changes. Her ideal goal — which she encourages all her peers to share — is an industry set up to minimize the stress inherent to proposals.
That ideal entails bid teams large enough to cope with the amount of work, managers that are empathetic toward the pressure their teams face, open discussions around stress and proposal managers who are more self-aware and conscious of their breaking points. It also means that companies are willing to bring in the tools their workers need to do their jobs properly.
As Mairi puts it, it's not a bad thing if you get to a stage where you can't cope. You just need to be open about it, and work in an environment that will support you as needed.
At this stage, most in the proposal industry have identified stress management as a major need. We don't have immediate solutions or proven answers yet, but we have ideas based on what we're seeing. People like Mairi will continue to push us toward a more balanced future. To move the needle forward, everyone who works with proposals should consider the role that stress plays in their lives — and what needs to change for that role to diminish.
Mairi will share more of her experiences and research at Privia's 2019 Virtual User Conference. Register today!