The Human Element and Proposal Success

Last week I wrote about the importance of overlaying the human element strategy onto writing successful RFP responses in the world of government contracting. I want to add to that by telling you a personal story about how that practice, when applied, leads to winning.

Following my participation in the NASA Apollo Program, I was managing the Huntsville, Alabama, branch office for Advanced Technology, Inc. (ATI) in the mid-1980s. I was positioning the company to pursue work in support of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) located in Huntsville. As a result of my Apollo Program experience I was familiar with MSFC and its Propulsion Technology focus and mission for NASA.

A historic and tragic event took place right when we were pursuing MSFC support opportunities. We lost the Space Shuttle Challenger. Since MSFC was responsible for the Shuttle propulsion systems design, the aftermath of determining the cause of the solid rocket booster explosion fell on the MSFC propulsion designers to investigate the accident and recommend future preventive measures.

As a result of the accident investigation outcome, the Center Director and his investigation team decided to create a Safety, Reliability, Maintainability and Quality Assurance Division (SRM&QA) and announced their plan to reach out to the private sector with an RFP to support the new division. 

The ATI Leadership Team met in the ATI Huntsville Office and huddled in the conference room. After some emotional but very focused dialog, we decided to respond to the RFP. Pursuing this type of work was a bold decision for a medium-sized company, given that every multi-billion-dollar major aerospace prime contractor was positioning to pursue this important activity. One of the key factors in our decision to pursue the work was that I had met Dr. Pat Odom during my work with the Apollo Program and had maintained a relationship with him. Pat was one of the center’s leading propulsion aerospace engineers and was widely known. 

We met with Pat and shared with him our response strategy. Pat shared our passion for helping MSFC recover from the devastating accident and—like us—had vowed to pursue supporting the Center’s recovery, both technically and emotionally.

Pat joined our team as the subject matter expert and I became the proposal manager. You can probably perceive that a human element strategy was emerging based on our genuine desire to bring the MSFC Leadership and Engineering Teams back and reestablish their “center of excellence” reputation for our nation’s future space exploration.

When we all assembled for the proposal kickoff meeting, Pat and I said a few words about the importance of the SRM&QA contract and that we needed to get into the heads of MSFC’s Leadership to convince them that we were the team that would “bring them back.” Before setting up this kickoff meeting, though, I had made a decision about how I would emphasize what MSFC was going through, as a result of losing not only the Challenger Shuttle but also her crew.

HERE COMES THE HUMEN ELEMENT MOVE OF ALL TIME! I took the entire ATI proposal team to the US Space and Rocket Center’s IMAX Dome theater to see the Hail Columbia movie about the first manned Shuttle flight piloted by two of the successful Apollo astronauts, John Young and Bob Crippen. Why take the team to this movie? Because watching this NASA movie about the first successful shuttle launch is an emotional experience. When you sit in the theater, your field of vision is almost entirely consumed by the screen—you feel like you’re really there.

As the movie opened, we felt like we were practically sitting under the vehicle and as the three main engines fired, followed by the solid rocket boosters’ explosive ignition, the visual experience and the power of the amplifiers moving your body was astounding. It brought tears to my eyes.

During the movie, the Challenger rolled to a stop at the end of the successful flight and Bob Crippen and John Young were obviously excited as they exited the vehicle with exuberance. They were seen strolling around and grinning, kicking the Shuttle’s tires and in an emotional statement one said: “We really have something with this magnificent machine. It’s extraordinary and it is going to revolutionize our future space exploration endeavors. We’re excited.” 

When the proposal team returned to the ATI conference room you can imagine the response. We didn’t say much or make any speeches, we just looked at one another and understood. We closed the meeting with an overarching proposal strategy, which showed that we were committed to bringing the MSFC Center back to that early excitement through our SRM&QA solution, enabling NASA to be on its way again.

Our passion, excitement, and genuine desire to help solve a problem came through in our response. WE WROTE, WE SUBMITTED, and WE WON!

What’s been your experience with responding to RFPs? In what ways do you factor in the human element? Feel free to comment in the space below.