To see red. Red is for danger. Get the red pen out. All these phrases conjure up negative emotions – anger, fear, criticism. Unfortunately, that is often how people perceive a Red Team review. Organised, briefed and managed effectively, a Red Team review can be the exact opposite – a constructive and positive experience. Let’s investigate how to achieve this.
First, let's define a Red Team review. It is a key milestone in the preparation of a business proposal. Think of it as a review of the final document. Given that the purpose of a proposal is to win business, you need to check that the document you have spent time and effort putting together is actually fit for its purpose. Will it win you the business? That is what the Red Team will validate.
The document must be checked against a number of criteria. As shown in Figure 1, it must be compliant, score maximum points, show responsiveness to customer needs, articulate your win strategy and look good. Overall, it must satisfy your customer better than your competitors’ proposals. The role of the Red Team is to check you have done all these things to the very best of your ability.
It is important not to mix up a Red Team review with either a quality assurance review or an internal business case review. Quality assurance is about checking spelling, grammar and formatting, and should be carried out before the Red Team gets to see the document. An internal business case review ensures all aspects of cost, risk and price have been considered and agreed. Some companies may use a copy of the proposal document to review and assess the business case, but it is better to have a separate document to capture this information. It is the approved result of the internal business case that will be presented in the customer-facing proposal.
An “independent” review is often how people refer to a Red Team exercise. This view has created the myth that all Red Team participants must have had zero involvement in the proposal development prior to the Red Team. So let’s dispel this myth straightaway.
One of the easiest ways to create last minute stress in a proposal environment is to involve someone completely new, late in the process. Even if this hasn’t happened to you, I can assure you it’s happened to many: Mr Independent arrives for the final document review and pronounces “You shouldn’t have done it that way, you should have done it like this”. Now, Mr Independent is often a senior person so everyone feels obliged to do what he says. Late nights ensue, leading to macho stories of “pulling an all-nighter” and eating cold pizza for supper.
The right people to involve in the Red Team review are senior managers and Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who have been involved in the journey; not in detail, but at key milestones. They understand the customer’s objectives, requirements and evaluation approach, and they understand the win strategy. Hence, they are well-positioned to pass judgement on how well the final proposal shapes up as a winning document. You will typically have representatives from different functions of the business possibly including commercial, technical and professional services. Some companies also involve legal and procurement.
If you decide there is a really valuable independent person you wish to involve, they must be absolutely briefed on the background and their role, which is not to question the strategy, but to test how well it is executed and how fit for purpose the document is.
Red Team reviews are important for all major proposals, but they are useful for smaller ones too. Whenever you decide to include one, the same rules about timing apply.
There are many tales of Red Team reviews being convened on the day of proposal submission. This is, to put it mildly, nonsense. Even if you have done all your planning and management correctly, thereby minimising last minute changes, there will always be something to amend. You have to leave yourself time to make those changes in a quality way and still have time to undertake professional production of the final document.
You should typically schedule a Red Team review between 70% and 80% through your proposal development timeline. Figure 2 shows a 100 day proposal response timeline with the timing of typical key milestones.
Although the actual Red Team review work takes place towards the end of the process, it is essential to set the dates during the planning and preparation phase and get them in the reviewers’ diaries. They are likely to be busy people, so pre-book them and make sure they understand the importance of the activity – to help win more business. Setting the date early also focuses the mind on getting the document completed.
Traditionally, Red Team reviews have been run “in person” in a dedicated proposal room where the documents can be laid out on tables. For large, complex proposals, this is still a good approach as it promotes a team atmosphere, ensures dedicated time and is most conducive to a wrap-up discussion. However, in today’s mobile age when many teams are distributed, the Red Team can be run using collaborative communication tools. Conference calls or emails can be used for briefings and de-briefings, and documents can be shared via email or a central intranet or portal. These methods are particularly useful where flexibility to suit people’s schedules and preferred locations is important.
Remember we defined a Red Team review as a review of the final document? By final, we mean final. The Red Team members should see a copy of what you intend to send to your customer. Even if you are going to send the proposal by email, you need to work with hard copy at this stage; the customer is highly likely to print it off so you need to know how it will look on the page.
As well as the final proposal, you need:
Those are the documents. Then you need the reviewers themselves. Each reviewer should be allocated a clear role and associated responsibilities. For example, is everyone reading everything, or are you splitting up the document and allocating sections to different people? Are you asking someone to check for compliance, someone to check for good articulation of the win strategy and someone to check how many points are being scored? Your decision will depend of the size and nature of the document, the people and the time available, but ensure that all the aspects in Figure 1 are covered.
For a major “in person” Red Team review, it is advisable to use an independent facilitator to run the session. The proposal manager has been very involved and is emotionally attached to the document by now, so may be defensive about any feedback. Using a facilitator can ease this. The facilitator will learn the brief from the proposal manager, share this with the Red Team at the start of the review, then run a discussion at the end of the review to consolidate feedback ready for the proposal manager to take over again.
No matter which way you have set up the review, remember that we are looking for the Red Team members to be constructive. Their job is to spot anything that will improve the win probability of the proposal. You want them not only to indicate what can be improved, but how it can be improved. Comments like “this isn’t very good” or “not the best example” are not helpful. If the reviewer deems some text or a graphic “not very good”, then they must have a view on how to improve it, so they must say how. If they can judge something to be “not the best example”, they must know a better example and must say so. The best way to do this is using separate comment forms on which the reviewer must note the proposal section, the amendment to be made and whether it is mandatory or optional. It is also possible to use sticky notes. For remote reviews, people sometimes use Microsoft Word track changes, but this can make conflict resolution difficult during post-Red Team editing, so think carefully about the practicality of this method.
After the Red Team has completed its review, it is the proposal manager’s responsibility to incorporate all the mandatory changes and decide which of the optional ones can be included in the time available.
I hope this article has given you an idea of what can be achieved through good use of Red Team reviews. Done properly, they should help you win more business. So instead of seeing red, think perhaps of beautiful red roses to represent a perfectly presented proposal, red hot to represent the compelling story you have told and red for passion to represent the desire you will instil in your customer. Give it a go?
 For ease of illustration the diagram depicts 10% contingency at the end of the process, but contingency is most effective when split across each stage of the process
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