The Value of Knowing Where you Are and What you Know

Some while back, Execupundit posted an example of assumptions gone wrong in the story of some prisoners planning an escape. He was outlining the importance of stating assumptions, which is crucial. In my last business, when writing a proposal in response to an RFP, we would always keep a list of assumptions that we made about the application, the environment, the business needs, whatever. It might scrawled in the margin of the RFP or on a separate sheet, but it had to be someplace. It’s a critical step… a wrong assumption could blow the proposal by aiming at the wrong target or by over or under delivering, which would throw the pricing way off. As a result, you can end up being relieved if you don’t get the project, or you can get the award, meaning that either you or the client or both will be unhappy with the results.

As our proposals were sketched out, any insignificant assumptions which could be assessed on both sides and resolved without impact to the project could be checked off. Sometimes further information in the RFP or from the client would answer some of them, but anything left which was significant and could impact the project would need to be written into the proposal in some form. Assumptions are dangerous… unstated assumptions can be lethal to the succes of a project.
This is true of business planning and strategy as well. A great strategy will only be effective if you get the starting point right… and sadly, there are a lot of small (or not-so-small) businesses who misjudge their current situation. They think they’re starting from someplace they aren’t, meaning they’ll probably land someplace that isn’t where they want to be.

A number of years ago, we had friends visit from out-of-town. They had directions to our home, but had unfortunately got themselves lost. In these days prior to the popularity of cell phones, they pulled up at a phone booth and called for further directions. “No problem,” I said. “Where are you?” Pause. “I don’t know,” my friend replied. This time I paused. What to do? The resolution was fairly simple… I had him describe his surroundings until I had gathered enough data to tell him where he was and how to get where he wanted to be. It’s a simple illustration, but its lesson is significant to setting any strategy or approaching any problem or project.

In any planning or strategy task, and in any project, the starting point is always to describe where you are, followed next by where you want to be. It’s amazing how many projects and business strategies go off the rails at this point, before they even start. We delivered a number of successful proposals which didn’t come from RFP documents, but came from meetings with prospective clients. For all but the smallest projects, these proposals typically started with a the heading “Situation”, which described the point from which the client was starting, giving a bit of history and enough current analysis to set the project in context… and then the “Objectives” section followed. If the client was with you on those two points, you had properly understood his situation and his objectives, which meant you had a fairly good chance of landing the project. I suspect that many of the competing proposals, the unsuccessful ones, started with the solution.

As a client, I’d personally want to know that the consultant understood the problem, not just the solution.