How to Establish a Successful Task Order Machine
According to a 2017 US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, spending by federal agencies on indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contracts accounts for about a third of total government contract obligations. With IDIQ contracts becoming more and more prevalent in the US federal government space, it’s critical that companies not only invest in the pursuit of IDIQ vehicles, but also establish a successful task order response machine. In this week’s article, I’ll discuss how to do just that! First, I’ll quantify the Government’s task order spend to understand why having a successful task order process is so important. Next, I’ll review the steps necessary to establish a successful process, including establishing the infrastructure, conducting capture activities and using baseline resources, establishing and leveraging proposal management resources, generating and using boilerplate sections, and generating and using task order templates. I’ll review how to establish and execute the task order response process and conduct lessons learned and iterative process adjustments. Finally, I’ll conclude with some key takeaways.
Quantifying the Government Spend
First, let’s take a look at some numbers related to Government spending. According to Daniel Snyder from Bloomberg Government, “Federal contract spending in fiscal 2019 reached $594 billion, the highest amount on record. That’s a 34% increase from the $442 billion in government spending obligations in fiscal 2015.” But how much is the Government allocating for multiple award contracts? A May 2019 report by Bloomberg Government showed government-wide spending on multiple award contracts increased from $118 billion in fiscal year 2017 to $132 billion in fiscal year 2018. Between 2013 and 2018, of new information technology (IT) task order awards, the Federal Government obligated $165 billion across 352,000 task orders. During this same time period, of new Professional Services task order awards, the Federal Government obligated $91 billion on roughly 96,000 task orders.
Why Are Multiple Award Contracts Appealing?
Multiple award contracts are appealing to the Government because they create a smaller, down-selected pool of contractors from which to solicit work via task orders. For this same reason, winning these multiple award contracts are appealing to contractors. These vehicles reduce the number of possible competitors, which increases your odds of winning from the start. This down-selected pool also helps to pre-focus your competitive analysis activities.
Why Is a Solid Task Order Response Process Important?
Winning the IDIQ vehicle is just the first step. How often do we see companies spending good time and money on winning an IDIQ vehicle but then fall flat on the task order responses? This is why setting up a solid task order response process is so critical. But where do you start? First, you’ll need to set up a task order response infrastructure—establish the templates and tools necessary to respond. Next, you should establish a task order response process—document those predefined actions to take once a task order opportunity is identified. Once the process is documented, you’ll need to communicate the process to the team. Conducting training sessions can help ensure that key process elements are understood by all internal stakeholders and team members. Next, you’ll need to execute your task order process. Then after each task order response, you’ll want to conduct lessons learned and adjust your process as needed.
1. Establishing the Infrastructure
The typical task order turnaround is 10 days, so it’s critical that you set up the necessary infrastructure to support an agile response process. When setting up your task order response infrastructure, the first thing you’ll need to do is establish your forecasting and capture function. Understanding when the task orders are expected to be released will help you to prepare for the response in advance and will help prevent the mad scramble that so many companies have become accustomed to. Once you have the task order pipeline established, you’ll want to review the pipeline regularly with your team. Identify the must win task orders and focus your capture efforts on those targeted opportunities. Next, you’ll want to establish your response hierarchy within your proposal management tool (e.g., SharePoint, Privia, Virtual Proposal Center). I recommend creating a main workspace for each IDIQ with sub-workspaces for each task order response.
At the IDIQ level, you’ll want to include key resources including the IDIQ Contract, the IDIQ proposal, sample past performance write-ups, boilerplate sections, task order templates, and sample graphics.
For each task order response workspace, you’ll want to include folders organized to support your task order response process. These folders include Solicitation Documents, Reference Materials, Capture Management, Proposal Management, Working Drafts, Review Files, Production, Graphics, and Final Submitted Files.
Task Order Capture Management
Capture is one area that we tend to skimp on when responding to task orders. However, this is a huge mistake. Capture is just as important for task order responses as it is for single award contracts—particularly for your larger and must win task orders. For each of your must win task orders, you’ll want to identify and meet with relevant stakeholders, including the end customer and decision makers. You’ll want to do the necessary research to understand who they are, what they care about, what their hot buttons are, what their goals are with the procurements, any issues they might be experiencing on current work, and any other information that would be helpful in developing a tailored and winning solution. As part of your capture efforts, you’ll also want to identify the top competitors. Document their strengths, weaknesses, and likely solution—including their expected price.
If you allow sufficient time, after you understand the customer and their needs, you’ll want to begin “shaping” the opportunity. You can do this by submitting white papers and conducting presentations. If a draft RFP is released, you should also submit red-lines and recommendations. For example, you might recommend relevant past performance requirements, solution elements, scope content, and key personnel requirements. Of course, in doing so, make sure the changes will be to your company or team’s benefit. It’s also critical to communicate clearly to the Government why including these things might be beneficial to them, particularly as they relate to reduced risks, increased efficiencies, and cost savings. If these recommendations show up in the final task order RFP, you know you’ve successfully shaped the opportunity.
In addition to opportunity shaping, during the capture phase you’ll want to document the key issues, features and benefits related to each major task order requirement (e.g., technical, management, staffing, etc.). You’ll also want to document your ideal solution based on the feedback you’ve received from your customer meetings. Using the information you’ve gathered, document your win themes and section themes—those hard hitting statements that will tell the government why they should select you. This information should feed your draft executive summary—which you should try to finish before the final RFP is released. Finally, you’ll want to have your bid/no-bid decision checklist or decision matrix ready for when that final task order RFP is eventually released.
Key Proposal Management Resources
Your response library should include key proposal management resources within the Proposal Management folder. These include sample schedules for common response turnarounds (e.g., 5-day, 10-day, 20-day, and 30-days), questions templates, points of contact lists, compliance matrix templates, review templates, and task order templates.
The Importance of Boilerplate Materials
You’ll also want to include boilerplate or reuse sections in your response library. These should be specific to the typical task order requirements, but will likely include cover letters, executive summaries, corporate capabilities, past performance write-ups, management plans and/or approaches, subcontracting plan and approach, technical approaches, and pricing approaches. For each of these sections, it’s helpful if you maintain these in the task order template and include content commonly asked for in the task order RFPs. Specifically for past performance, you’ll also want to maintain an up-to-date list of internal and external points of contact (e.g., project managers, technical points of contact, and contracting points of contact). Your management plan and/or approach should typically contain reuse content related to your project organization, transition approach, staffing approach, quality approach, safety measures, risk mitigation and management, schedule management, and cost controls. For the pricing template, you might include your cost accounting systems and standards, descriptions of your purchasing systems, descriptions of your estimating systems and procedures, DCAA and DCMA point of contact and any audit results, and any forward pricing rate agreements you may have in place.
Having strong boilerplate in place will help you to respond to task orders more efficiently because the baseline content is already ready. To facilitate even faster responses, include the most common boilerplate directly in the templates and other less common reference material as content to be inserted as required. I recommend leaving customer names out of your boilerplate to reduce the chances of accidentally leaving the wrong customer name in your task order response. Instead, replace customer names with the highlighted word <CUSTOMER> in all caps with angle brackets. This will facilitate easy find and replace and help prevent incorrectly replacing generic references to customers. I also recommend including mad lib like theme statements for your major sections. For example, in your transition section, you might include something like the following: To support a successful and low risk transition for <CUSTOMER>, our Transition Manager, <TRANSITION MANAGER NAME>, brings X years of experience transitioning projects of similar size, scope, and complexity to TASK ORDER NAME. This includes successfully transitioning more than X personnel onto the $X million contract name in less than x days/weeks/months.
In addition to maintaining narratives that can be tailored for each task order, I recommend also keeping a list of relevant proof points and facts that can be dropped into boilerplate that can be used to quickly tailor the content based on the project type and customer. Some examples of recommended proof points include the years of experience supporting common customers, the years of experience delivering common services, the number of facilities, the number of staff in common labor categories, and the number of cleared staff (if applicable). It’s also helpful to maintain some short past performance vignettes demonstrating transition successes, staffing ramp-ups, transformation success stories, successful implementations, demonstrated cost savings, process efficiencies, and any other relevant success stories.
Task Order Templates
Because the format requirements generally remain consistent from task order to task order, having pre-set task order templates ready before the RFPs drop will save you so much time. Your templates should include editable covers with placeholders for required information, editable headers and footers (also with placeholders for required information), as well as built-in styles set to meet common task order RFP requirements. At a minimum, set these built-in styles for headings, body text, bullets, table text, table bullets, figure titles, and action captions.
To further streamline your task order templates, I recommend pre-outfitting the templates with headings mapped to the most common task order requirements. Under each major requirement, drop in boilerplate that can be adjusted quickly with find and replace. Also include editable callout boxes as reminders for your team to add in relevant proof points and success stories. Additionally, make sure you include placeholders for common graphics, including organization charts, quality graphics, process flowcharts, risk matrices, and schedules.
2. Establish Your Response Process
Once you have your infrastructure in place, you’ll want to establish an easy-to-follow response process. This process should include task order capture activities (which I discussed earlier), task order RFP distribution and review, the bid/no-bid decision, resource assignments, shell document development (that is, adjusting the baseline template based off task order RFP specific requirements), questions collection and submission, draft development, review cycles, editing and finalization, and proposal submission. Generating a simple checklist with roles and responsibilities can help make sure your team never misses a beat.
3. Execute Your Response Process
It’s one thing to establish your process, but it’s another thing entirely to execute the process. Once you have firmed up your process, it’s critical that you distribute the process documents to the team. Additionally, keep your process documents electronically in a central location that everyone can find and access. Then, you should hold training sessions as early as possible with your team. During the training, walk through the response process, review roles and responsibilities, and demonstrate how to use the proposal site. You should review the site structure, version control measures, boilerplate availability, as well as the process for updating boilerplate content. Be prepared to execute just-in-time refresher training as well. It’s also helpful to communicate next steps throughout the task order response process so that the team can easily stay on track.
4. Conduct Lessons Learned
After each submission, conduct a brief lessons learned session. Additionally, win or lose, you’ll want to request a debrief from the Government. This will enable you to gather trends on things you’re doing well as well as things that need improvement.
5. Adjust Process as Needed
If you notice the same issue repeating itself during each response, then you may need to adjust the process to mitigate that problem for future submissions. For example, if you’re consistently losing on price, identify gaps in your capture processes as well as areas you can generally become leaner in your pricing. If your response lacks customer understanding, there may be gaps in your capture process, knowledge transfer, and/or bid-decision process. If non-compliances are noted, you may need to examine and adjust your outlining practices, writing process, review processes, and/or boilerplate content.
To effectively capture and win business under your IDIQ vehicles, an effective and efficient task order response process is critical. The most important step is to plan, capture, and prepare. This will support stronger task order content and faster turnarounds. Then, establish and document your task order response process, and make sure you communicate the process, including roles and responsibilities. This understanding of accountability will help ensure the process goes smoothly. Make sure you focus on and prioritize the must-win task orders. By focusing on strategic opportunities rather than simply playing a numbers game, you increase your win probably on the targeted efforts and should see an overall improved win rate across the task orders. If you’re juggling multiple concurrent task order responses, be sure to maintain a master schedule with all the task order deadlines and milestones. This will mitigate resource conflicts and help you successfully manage multiple task orders. Finally, conduct internal lessons learned and request debriefs, win or lose. As necessary, adjust your process to mitigate future issues.
Remember, winning the IDIQ is only the first step. You need to establish a successful task order machine to start winning those task orders. I hope some of these best practices will help!
Written by Ashley Kayes, CP APMP
Senior Proposal Consultant, AOC Key Solutions, Inc. (KSI)