Articles United Kingdom
10 November 2022 5 mins read

Pre-mortems in the bidding world

I want you to think about the bid you are on or one you are about to start. Think about the team, the bid, the customer.

What are bidding best practices?

Imagine it’s six months in the future and we’ve gathered to hear the customer’s decision on whether they have selected us… oh no, we lost… After the months, the trials, the missing time with the family, it’s come to this.

Feels grim, doesn’t it? So why did we lose? The classic reasons given are things like the price, gaps in the team, a win strategy sat on a shelf, and even governance moving the goalposts at the last minute.

What is frustrating is that so many of those things could have been anticipated and mitigated, but now it’s too late. You might be left thinking…

  • If only we had a solid price to win
  • If only we had adequately resourced the team in good time
  • If only we had executed that win strategy
  • If only we had properly briefed the governance board
  • If only…

If only you’d carried out a pre-mortem analysis on your bid before it went to tender.

What is a pre-mortem?

It’s a mixture of an assessment, an exercise and an analysis of what might go wrong with a bid. A pre-mortem is an opportunity to think about the reasons we will fail — whether that’s on a bid, across a capability, or a company. Project teams have been using pre-mortem exercises since Gary Klein started doing them in 1998.

Research by Mitchell, Russo, and Pennington, found that prospective hindsight — imagining that an event has already occurred, and the groundwork of a pre-mortem — increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%.

So change the question: don’t ask what could go wrong, ask what did go wrong.

Overall, this kind of certainty led to 30% more reasons and twice as many action-based reasons than abstract reasons. Making the failure concrete rather than abstract alters how the mind thinks about the problem.

Pre-mortems and avoiding optimism bias

What can we do right now at the beginning of the new bid to avoid the ‘if only’?

We normally have a win strategy session. In fact, if you listen to the bidding industry this is the one event to rule them all. I was very good at winning strategies as an EMEA facilitator for a big tech services company and we did not necessarily win all the bids. It’s not a silver bullet.

The win strategy is totally focused on how we can beat the competition and win. What about the reasons we could lose that are not about the customer or the competition? What about the bid itself? Gabriele Oettingen’s psychology lab at New York University has shown that visualising our aims as already achieved can backfire. The positive imagery can be inspiring at first but it also tricks the mind into relaxing, as if the hard work is done. This means the more compelling the mental scene of success, the more likely it is that your energy will seep away. We ignore the risks.

Optimism bias comes in too because we are humans, and we end the session ready to crack the champagne. “No negativity is allowed here — we’re going to win!” How can we counter that?

Learning from HROs and risk management

Think about risk management. What do people who have to be good at risk management do? The people that run nuclear power plants, air traffic control systems, and aircraft carriers, among others, are known as High Reliability Organisations, or HROs. An HRO is an organisation that has succeeded in avoiding catastrophes despite a high level of risk and complexity.

HROs have been studied by researchers Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe. They found that successful HROs have:

  • Preoccupation with failure. Do not ignore the small process failures, deal with them immediately. Be open to looking for failure.
  • Reluctance to simplify. Complex problems get complex solutions. Embrace the complexity. Leaders are willing to challenge long-held beliefs.
  • Sensitivity to operations. Every voice matters and the best picture of reality comes from the front line.
  • Resilience. Committed to it. Recovery is swift and you innovate solutions in a dynamic environment.
  • Expertise. Always deference to expertise. Trust them. Value expertise over authority.

We need a new way of bidding for complex opportunities. If you can be more HRO and anticipate failure, you could be in with a better chance of winning.

How pre-mortems help you win bids

Pre-mortems help you to be like a HRO to change the question and preoccupied with failure. Other techniques involve:

  • Not simplifying, and instead look at how we bid, as well as how we win
  • Embracing pessimism and countering optimism bias with the people that know what’s going to happen.

A pre-mortem helps the team to be invested in the outcome, here and now — before the bid has been submitted. Checking for holes, problems, and any other issues that could cause the bid to fail before it’s had the chance to fail — now that’s what we’re talking about.

A pre-mortem from an outsider’s perspective means it’s not the bid manager on their own, it’s the variety of experts with their diverse views. Pre-mortems help you to fail fast or work to win the bid right now.

Our recommendation? Avoid the potential pitfalls of a post-mortem and let’s do a pre-mortem before the bid has died. Get in touch with BidCraft today to get your pre-mortem started.