The Development Source

The Past is Prologue: How to Win With Past Performance

In a typical proposal to a federal agency, companies must demonstrate that they (1) have a sound technical solution or product that will address the challenges described in the Request for Proposal (RFP); and that they (2) have successful experience in previous contracts doing similar work. In other words, proposals are finely balanced between the past and the future.

Although proposal professionals understand the need for balance, they usually concentrate on #1 rather than #2. This is a mistake, according to business development veterans Jim Hiles and W. Earl Wells, the authors of an outstanding guide to improving past performance in proposals, Winning with Past Performance: Strategies for Industry and Government (Tysons Corner, VA: Management Concepts Press, 2015).

This is an unusual book because it simultaneously addresses both private sector companies and federal agencies. Because of its dual focus on buyers and sellers, it has three interlocking themes:
• Buyers and sellers need to provide detailed, accurate information about each other to determine the impact of their actions on the other party, on the RFP, and on the outcomes they desire.
• Information about past performance has an important impact on contract execution and thus improves performance and operations.
• Because both buyers and sellers need to understand each other, past performance information reported by the buyer and past performance write-ups reported by the seller provide critically important information through the telling of stories.

I will focus on sellers because that is our role as proposal professionals – selling products and services to the federal sector. According to Hiles and Wells, sellers need to adopt a thoughtful and rigorously methodological approach to the performance write-up sections in their proposals because of the need to tell a compelling story about their ability to perform successfully and at a high level.

Chapter 1 defines past performance and provides an informative history of its use in proposals. Chapter 2 explains the past performance life cycle, a series of activities that is supposed to occur all year regardless of the proposal schedule. Chapter 3, which includes useful examples, shows how to tell a compelling story through past performance write-ups that provide context, show impact, and increase the understanding of buyers. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 describe how past performance evaluations are used and assessed and disputes and protests that may occur as a result.

Chapters 7 and 8 peer into the future and examine how past performance is changing and what the future may look like for companies in this arena. Throughout these chapters, Hiles and Wells show their readers how to collect, store, retrieve, and use past performance write-ups to demonstrate the probability of successful future performance. Winning with Past Performance concludes with a bibliography, acronyms and abbreviations, and a glossary of terms.

This book is not only unusual because of its dual focus on buyers and sellers but also because it can be used profitably by proposal professionals at any stage in their careers. Both novices and veterans will benefit from it.

From my perspective, Winning with Past Performance is the clearest, most informative, and most helpful book written on the subject. After reading it, you will not look at past performance write-ups in the same way as you did on your last proposal. It belongs on every proposal professional’s reference shelf.

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