Many of us have at least some experience working in a mushy decision-making environment. Mushy environments are ones where deadlines are guidelines and decisions are deferred, reversed, revised or revisited. There is a fine line between nimble and mushy. The tendency toward flexible decision-making is understandable; we work in changing and complex environments. Often, we are trying to mesh specific and time-bound business development requirements with program implementation timelines and needs.
In business development, however, there fine is a line between a flexible decision and one that hampers the process and the final product. A mushy work environment can lead to chaos, communication break downs, and extra work. It can create a perception of a lack of accountability.
For example, if an organization commits to increasing its award size by not bidding on any opportunity below a threshold amount or aims to focus its work in select sectors, are exceptions “strategic” or “mushy”?
Business development requires a certain crispness, if for no other reason than there often is not time to wait for clarity to emerge. From target-setting to pipeline analysis to bid decisions and partner negotiations, we must work to shift our conversations from the general to the specific as quickly as possible to make decisions.
Being crisp and clear carries a certain risk. If we are clear about our targets and we miss them, what will happen in our organization? If we insist on crispness, what will our colleagues say? If we tell a partner what their likely scope and budget is, will they stick with us?
Here are eight things that proposal staff can do to manage mushiness when your workload demands a crisp decision.
Recognize mushiness. We can be so accustomed to mushiness that we may not even notice it. Train yourself to notice to unnecessarily ambiguous or flexible decisions. Ask whether you can do more to define the problem or the decision. Drill down as far as possible. Don’t let things slide.
Don’t confuse crisp with rigid, or mushy with nice. Strive to maintain a positive working relationship while maintaining a clear decision-making style.
Define the decision. Decision-makers who are not frequently involved in proposals may not see the systemic nature of a decision nor grasp the whole picture immediately or appreciate the tight deadlines and pressure to move quickly. Describe as completely as possible the decision and its implications up front. If possible, involve the most senior person affected by the decision in its definition.
Determine who is the relevant decision-maker. Proposals that cut across sectors or geographies or organizational functions often involve professionals from across the organization. This can create confusion about who is the final decision-maker. For example, if there needs to be more than one decision-maker on a bid, then drill down to define what decisions will be made by whom (e.g., the technical lead can define our solution, but our HR team will make the final call on the salary package.) Note whether you need to inform, consult, seek consent, or achieve consensus with major decisions. A responsibility assignment matrix that specifies responsibilities by task can be helpful for business development processes.
Remind people of the costs of inaction. People tend to feel worse about bad outcomes that result from their actions than they do about bad results from inaction, making inaction an easier default when faced with difficult decisions. Rather than defer a decision, determine what information is required to make one. For example, technical teams may prefer to wait to read a draft request for proposals or applications before seeking partners or developing technical solutions, losing the opportunity to collect field data or work with partners who might become otherwise committed.
Focus on the gains, rather than losses or risks. When faced with loss or risk of loss, people tend to become more risk averse. If you are seeking to get a commitment to action, then frame the decision in terms of what is to be gained.
Do not underestimate the need to justify a decision (internally or externally). This is especially true in external conversations. In research, participants will more frequently accept unusual or difficult requests if there is a justification for them. If you or your organization need something specific from a negotiation, then be clear about that and put it in writing. Don’t be afraid to make the request at the right time, but be sure to provide an explanation.
Document these decisions. Sometimes, participants make the best decision possible given the information available. Over time, things change and it can be important to have a written understanding of who made a decision and why.