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Proposal Best Practices: Application to Commercial and Federal Businesses
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Incorporating Best Practices into Standard Procedures and Processes

Posted By MitchR, Saturday, February 19, 2011

August 10, 2009

A well designed and thought out process based on accomplishing best practices can dramatically improve proposal quality and reduce proposal development work and stress. Processes based on following detailed "steps” unnecessarily add to the time, effort, and cost to proposal development often with diminished value to the customer.

The core intent or goal of any standard procedure or process is to ensure products and services are provided in a consistent predictable manner. Consider a proposal as a product created for your sales representative to deliver to your customer. Procedures and processes also embody lessons learned from individuals or organizations, thus becoming a checklist to ensure internal control and quality. Over time, processes too often become chocked with procedural steps that interfere or slow down the proposal development effort based on ever changing management requirements. While the original process may have been necessary or well meaning, the reasons for steps are no longer known nor are the steps needed but are continued out of tradition or custom.

All proposals are unique. Therefore, proposal development procedures should be written to include only the minimum, necessary steps to enforce the use of proposal "best practices” to ensure a quality product and allow maximum flexibility. There are many benefits of a well thought out proposal process. These benefits at a minimum include:

  • Improved Business Development Capability through defined, efficient processes
  • Focus placed on true customer requirements and needs because the internal elements are consistent and effectively implemented
  • Reduced cost per effort in both time and resources
  • Reduced learning curve for new proposal professionals
  • Reduced variation across the organization minimizing unwanted customization
  • Working the plan, not just "planning the work”
  • Enhanced Continual Improvement through structured and defined feedback loops
  • Updated matrix measurements to track and measure productivity
  • Improved Win Rates

Incorporating Best Practices into Standard Procedures and Processes presents eight basic steps with examples to help you benefit from Proposal Best Practices while avoiding typical traps encounter by proposal professionals. These basic steps include:

  • Step 1 – Define and Map Your Proposal Process: Define current processes being followed in a graphical map to ensure your understanding of current proposal development state
  • Step 2 – Identify Best Practices to Incorporate: Identify potential best practices that offer the greatest opportunity to improve productivity/quality while reducing time/cost to develop proposals
  • Step 3 – Define Process Inputs and Outputs: Define data inputs/outputs required to develop the proposal and to ensure your understanding of the inter- and intra-departmental activities
  • Step 4 – Define Roles and Responsibilities: Define the who, what, and when at each phase in the proposal development process
  • Step 5 – Develop Standard Forms: Determine the tools that support the proposal development process and when to apply them
  • Step 6 – Write Procedures and Work Instructions: List of key components of a procedure/work instruction to ensure proposal professionals fully understand their role, responsibility, and management expectations
  • Step 7 – Train, Train, and Re-Train: Provide training to ensure your proposal staff can apply new best practices
  • Step 8 – Apply Lessons Learned: Create your own best practices and incorporate them into your procedures

Key: The best procedures contain only the key and necessary steps required to ensure process quality and minimize variation while allowing for flexibility for unique circumstances. Thus, variation is reduced while allowing organizational and process flexibility.

Step 1 – Define and Map Your Proposal Process

Visualizing the proposal process will allow you to more easily develop process instructions and sell the process to others and management.

The first step is to define and map out the proposal process, as it is incorporated into your specific company or organization, using a graphic program. Document and categorize the differences between the various types of proposals your organization writes such as:

  • Formal Proposals
  • Letter Proposals
  • Task Execution Plans (TEP) or Task Orders (TO)
  • Statement of Work (SOW), System Requirements Document (SRD), and System Specifications

Break the proposal process into various phases to allow better management planning such as:

  • Pre-Proposal Planning (Pre-RFP Release)
  • Proposal Development
  • Proposal Production/Submission
  • Post-Submission Activities

The final step is to understand your management’s expectations and to gain management buy-in. See the sample proposal process flowchart next page.

Note: Sample Proposal Process Flowchart will be added soon.

Sample Process Map: Each type of document may require a different approach, procedure, or work instruction to accomplish, thus its own graphical representation.

Key: Individuals reluctant to spend one minute reading a document will expend great efforts reviewing a thoughtfully developed graphical flowchart or cross-functional process map.

Step 2 – Identify Best Practices to Incorporate

Best Practices should improve proposal quality and lead to improved proposal development productivity and increased win rates.

Determine those best practices to follow for each proposal type. The key goal here is to apply best practices where they will have the greatest impact on proposal quality while improving workflow. Types of best practices include:

  • Proposal Management Plan (PMP) Development
    • Proposal Project Description
    • Key themes, win strategies, and discriminators
    • Proposal Teams Roles and Responsibilities with Contact Information
    • Schedule
    • Compliance Matrix
    • Proposal Outline
    • Action Item List with Deliverables and Dates
  • Kick-Off Meetings
  • Daily Standup Meetings
  • Proposal Reviews
  • Storyboards
  • Lessons Learned (Analyzing/documenting opportunities for improvement and flowing improvements back and through the system)

In addition to determining those best practices to incorporate into your process, you will also need to determine when to apply them. Factors include:

  • Response Time (Time to Respond): If a proposal is due in less than 10 business days, you may only have time to conduct a single formal review team.
  • Opportunity Dollar Value: An opportunity worth less than $100k versus one valued over $10M may require only a director level approval where a high value program requires the president's or board's approval.
  • Customized versus Standard Product or Service: A well established produce/service offering with no design changes may require minimum or not proposal support versus a new or highly modified existing produce/service offering requiring development of business case and impact business structure and operation.
  • Customer Requirements: Single site system installation versus highly complex, multi-location systems integration requiring engineering design review and approval.
  • Response Document Size: Letter or 10 page response document requiring only a single writer versus a 500 page multi-copy document submission requirement requiring on full proposal team.

Develop a detailed list of definitions and acronyms you will use or present in your procedures. It is important that everyone agree upon vernacular, especially management. See the APMP glossary as a reference guide.

Finally, go back to Step 1 and determine what best practices should be incorporated into your process flow diagram.

It is very important to separate the "Required” steps to perform a task from the "Technique” used to accomplish the task.

Key: The number and type of best practices applied to your process needs to be evaluated against the organization’s maturity and the proposal department personnel skill levels.

Step 3 – Define Process Inputs and Outputs

A clear understanding of what must be delivered allows you to better define what is required to produce that deliverable.

The development of proposal content requires information provided from multiple sources. Development of the process requires a clear understanding of that minimum information required to initiate, develop, and submit a final proposal document.

Determine proposal department inputs and outputs. For example, determine:

  • Inputs:
    • Documents you receive that authorize you to initiate a proposal effort, i.e., Bid/No Bid Decision Memo or email from manager
    • Request for Proposal/Information/Quote/Industry Comment (RFP/I/Q/IC)
    • Data/Information from Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) for content development
    • Customer Information/Business Intelligence
    • Market/Competitive Intelligence
  • Outputs
    • Documents, data, or information required to either initiate or provide support for departments and SMEs.
    • Reports/matrix data management needs for planning and oversight
    • Final Proposal
    • Lessons Learned Report with recommendations on how to improve the overall process\
    • Win/Loss and customer feedback from debriefings

As you determine department inputs and outputs begin defining in what form or format you should receive and transmit this information, i.e., email, hardcopy, etc. Include how and where you will store and manage information developed during your proposal development effort. Remember, forms utilized to capture quality records (the output of key processes) must be controlled through the ISO/CMM document control system.

Finally, go back to Step 1 and determine those minimum inputs and outputs that should be incorporated into your process flow diagram.

Key: The proposal department must facilitate open and responsive communications between themselves and other departments to ensure everyone has the correct data and information necessary to support effective proposal content development.

Step 4 – Define Roles and Responsibilities

Proposal development is a team effort requiring the coordination of multiple departments and SME’s. Each team member needs to understand their role to ensure their contribution occurs.

An important component of your procedure is clearly defined roles and responsibilities for all individuals whose work affects the quality of the proposal and are responsible for participating in the proposal process from initiation through final approval. Some of the roles should include:

  • Business Development/Capture Manager
  • Proposal Manager
  • Proposal Coordinator
  • Proposal Technical Writer/SME
  • Graphic Illustrator
  • Assigned Proposal Team Members [Integrated Proposal Team (IPT)]
  • Review Team Members

Each participant’s role and responsibility will change through each defined, proposal process phase. These differences need to be clearly documented in the proposal development procedure or at a high level if individual work instructions are developed to cover specific phases. A sample responsibility is provided below:

Sample Responsibility: Proposal Manager

The Proposal Manager is responsible for all aspects of proposal development, scheduling, planning, production, and delivery to the customer including the administration, mechanics, and logistics of assigned RFP. Following an initial bid decision by management, the Proposal Manager assumes control of the proposal development effort. Tasks performed by the Proposal Manager are:

Proposal Planning/Initiation

  1. Actively participate as a Capture Team member to create the capture/proposal strategy and concept of operations and attend key events such as Black Hat and Blue Team Reviews, Industry Day, etc.
  2. Create Integrated Proposal Team (IPT) which reports to the Proposal Manager during the proposal development effort
  3. Develop the Proposal Management Plan (PMP) based on the Sample PMP
  4. Prepare Kick-off Materials based on Sample Proposal Kickoff Agenda
  5. Develop initial executive summary, initial outline, storyboards, and graphics
  6. Assist in the selection of suitable past performance references

Proposal Response Development

  1. Conduct Proposal Kick-off Meeting
  2. Lead the proposal response development effort using the proposal SharePoint website to ensure the project remains focused and on schedule
  3. Prepare overall compliance matrix in accordance with RFP
  4. Identify variance between mockup, draft, and final RFP and modify outline accordingly
  5. Facilitate review teams and brief all reviewers to outline expectations
  6. Compile and evaluate Review Team Evaluation Score Sheets
  7. Work with Proposal Volume Leads, Technical Writers, subject matter experts, consultants, and the Graphics Artist to determine edits, modifications, or changes required for each proposal response section

Proposal Production, Approval, and Submission

Manage the proposal production activities to ensure the final proposal is delivered on time and in compliance with customer instructions and this procedure. Activities include:

  1. Lead effort to compile, review, and produce the final proposal response and package assembly
  2. Verify response material, proposal organization, formats, and final layouts are in compliance with RFP requirements
  3. Submit proposal response to the customer

Post Submittal Activities

  1. Archive proposal development materials, records, and documents
  2. Send Lessons Learned Forms to the IPT members including Capture Manager
  3. Compile completed Lessons Learned Forms into a single Lessons Learned Report for presentation to the IPT witth recommendations for corrective actions, opportunities for improvement
  4. Facilitate the Lesson Learned Review
  5. Record and report proposal development metrics to the Director of Proposal Development to include final document statistics
  6. Coordinate with Capture Manager to develop and submit Item for Negotiation (IFN) or Evaluation Notice (EN) when requested by customer
  7. Support Capture Manager in the development of the Win/Loss Analysis Debrief
  8. Conduct a proposal project records and documents audit

Key: When individual contributors understand what is expected from them and the commensurate timelines, the opportunity for miscommunications is decreased and team productivity is increased. Well defined processes, over time, reduces variation.

Step 5 – Develop Standard/Sample Forms

Every proposal is unique. Therefore, forms need to be flexible enough to adapt to each proposal while capturing and communicating important data requirements.

The fifth step is to develop the quality records, forms, and templates that will be used during the execution of the procedure.

Quality records, forms, and templates are documents to be completed or developed in a specified format or to present specified content. These documents contain objective evidence that a task, procedure, or work instruction was accomplished, and are stored as evidence.

Forms may include:

  • Sample Proposal Management Plan (PMP)
  • Proposal Project Notification Form/Distribution List
  • Sample Proposal Kick-off Agenda
  • Sample Storyboard
  • Sample Review Team Agenda/Evaluation Score Sheet
  • Printing and Delivery Checklist
  • Lessons Learned/Corrective Action or Opportunity For Improvement Form

You will notice several forms start with samples. These types of forms are by design meant to be both flexible and dynamic, allowing the content to vary based on:

  • Information available at the time of development
  • Required changes over the course of the proposal project
  • The needs of a specific proposal

Next, determine the minimum content that must be provided or not provided depending on several factors specific to each type of proposal. See the following two samples: Proposal Management Plan (PMP) and the Proposal Kick-off Package.

Sample 1: Prepare Proposal Management Plan (PMP)

The Proposal Management Plan (PMP) documents the roles, responsibilities, tasks, and key dates for the proposal development team. For each formal proposal, a PMP will be developed containing information on as many of the elements identified in the table below as available:

Element Sub Elements (Complete as information is available or when created)
Proposal Project Summary General Information
Project Focal Points
Project Scope and Deliverables
Customer Profile Intelligence on Customer Organization
Source Selection Process
Customer Needs, Issues, and Hot Buttons
Customer Perceptions of your company
Competitive Analysis (Optional) Companies Approach and Perceived Strengths/Weaknesses
Competitor Profiles and Strengths/Weaknesses
Bidder Comparison Matrix
Proposal Strategies and Themes Overall Proposal Strategies and Themes
Technical Proposal Strategies and Themes
Management Proposal Strategies and Themes
Cost Proposal Strategies and Themes
Past Performance Strategies and Themes
Staffing, Roles, and Responsibilities Integrated Proposal Team
Proposal Review Team
Proposal Operations Proposal Development Key Activities/Schedule
Proposal Outline and Writing Assignments
Proposal Template
Writers’ Workflow and Standards
Preliminary Executive Summary (Optional)
Proposal Deliverables List of Proposal Deliverables

The Proposal Management Plan is a dynamic document that will be updated throughout the proposal development project.

Sample 2: Prepare Proposal Kick-off Package

The Proposal Kick-off Package is used to present key proposal project information about the customer, contract, and additional information composed largely from the PMP. The quality presentation of material contained in the Proposal Kick-off Package sets the tone of the proposal development effort. The Proposal Kick-off Package should contain the following items unless marked optional:

Element Content/Function Mandatory/Optional
Agenda • Sets meeting schedule and order of presentation
• A sample Kick-off Meeting Agenda is provided in PDP-404
Formal Proposals (FP) – Mandatory
Letter Proposals (LP) – Mandatory
Request for Information (RFI) –Mandatory
Introduction to the Opportunity • Upcoming/Scheduled Key Dates/Events
• Introduction to the proposed program (Profile)
FP – Mandatory
LP – Optional
Customer Profile • Background information about the customer
• Key Players
• Bid Strategy, Win Themes, Hot Button Issues (How to Address) Evaluation Process
• Perception of your company
FP/LP/RFI – Optional
Competitive Analysis Competitor Profiles (Strengths/Weaknesses) FP/LP/RFI – Optional
Technical Solution High-level Approach FP/LP/RFI – Optional
Partnering Strategy • Strategic Partners including Small Businesses
• Service/Product Partners
• Contractors/Consultants
FP/LP/RFI – Optional
International Efforts • International Division Support
• International Specific Requirements
FP/LP/RFI – Optional
Proposal Process (Operations) • Process Description (Expectations)
• Roles and Responsibilities (Overview)
• Key Dates/Activities
• Outline Review
• Writing Standards
• Next Action Steps
FP – Mandatory
LP/RFI – Optional
Proposal Development Schedule/Deliverables • Key dates
• Volume, Section, Plans, etc.
FP/LP/RFI – Mandatory
Customer Documents RFP, RFI, SOW, Technical Specifications, or other FP/LP/RFI:
Electronic – Mandatory
Hardcopy – Optional


The Proposal Manager will:

  1. Compile mandatory and available optional material in a Proposal Kick-off Package
  2. Set up meeting location
  3. Set up conference call number for remote attendees (when required)
  4. Send invitations to the integrated proposal team (IPT) members. Invitations to include:
    1. RFP or web link
    2. Meeting location
    3. Conference call dial-in information for remote attendees
  5. Record Attendees
  6. Store the Proposal Kick-off Meeting Agenda and the attendee list in the Proposal Project Archive
  7. Update the PMP as required

For Letter Proposal or RFI efforts, Meeting Minutes may be used as a substitute for creating the Kick-off package.

Finally, determine the retention period and location for each form.

Key: The consistent use of quality records, forms, and templates can re-enforce proposal best practices.

Step 6 – Write Procedures and Work Instructions

Developing a single complex process document may create confusion. Instead, create a single high-level procedure supported by multiple, manageable work instructions.

Proposal procedures/work instructions normally consist of components presented in the following table:

Section Description
Purpose States the reason for the document, why it has been written, what it does or is used for.
Scope Describes:
• When the procedure is required including any limitations or constraints
• Who is required to perform this procedure
• What condition or situations this procedure covers including exceptions
Requirements Events for conditions that must be met to perform the procedures, i.e., authorization to proceed from Bid/No Bid Board or Director.
Responsibility List of responsibilities for each role (by job title) of the proposal team and contributing members. One team member may be designed or assigned multiple roles.
Process Description and Diagrams Descriptive text that outlines the procedure and/or a graphical diagram.
Quality Records Forms or other documents that will be created as a result of performing this procedure.
Definitions List of terms used in the procedure and agreed upon definitions.
Acronyms List of Acronyms contained in the procedure.


Key: Keeping the overall procedure simple and work instructions focused on specific proposal phases allows individuals to concentrate on accomplishing the core tasks and best practices required to achieve the best overall results.

Step 7 – Train, Train, and Re-Train

Proposal Best Practices are readily accepted when management and proposal staff clearly understands their purpose and can link effort to results.

It is a best practice to train or require training in all expected duties for proposal team members. Training should include:

  • Basic and advanced proposal development skills
  • Procedure/work instruction training
  • Product/Service training on the products and services being offered by your company
  • Software training on tools used to develop proposals

The proposal staff needs to understand core proposal best practices, when to apply them for the greatest effect, and the ultimate benefit they offer. With this understanding, the proposal staff will demonstrate results and management will become more willing to accept the application of additional proposal best practices in future procedures updates.

Key: Verifiable and meaningful results of applying proposal best practices will establish credibility.

Step 8 – Apply Lessons Learned

Best Practices are techniques and methods that when properly and consistently applied to work efforts get proven and desired results. These techniques and methods are often important lessons learned created through hard work, trial and error.

Following proposal efforts, the team needs to evaluate what went well, what went wrong, and why. Too often, lessons learned meetings focus on problems encountered. However, it is critical to focus on what went well. This understanding will allow you to repeat this success in future efforts. Likewise, it is equally important to understand and document areas of difficulty and clearly identify the root cause in order to not repeat failure.

It is vital that any lessons learned meeting be focused on the process and effort and never on the people. If there are personnel performance issues, these need to be dealt with in a different forum.

The Lessons Learned Process1 involves two discrete steps:

  • Analyzing and documenting opportunities for improvement
  • Connectivity – Flowing improvements back into the procedure

Analyzing/Documenting Opportunities for Improvement

The outcome of all lessons learned meetings should be a formal lessons learned report. The lessons learned reports must be scrutinized and any indication of common or recurring problems must be attacked and, likewise, success must be rewarded. Assessment of the lessons learned report must be conducted by management. In general, managers must look for the "common thread”, that is, identifying recurring problems and areas of success.

The key step in preventing future problems is to ensure corrective action is taken to mitigate problems before they occur. Those involved with the proposal process will have a very good idea of the root cause of any problem associated with their proposal.

Connectivity – Flowing Improvements Back and Through the System

It is not enough to just understand the root cause of a problem. After analysis has occurred, actionable items must flow into the corrective action or an Opportunity for Improvement System. Ultimately, for continual improvement to occur, corrective actions generated from the Lessons Learned Report must be flowed back into the system resulting in improvements to methods and procedures.

Continual improvement cannot occur in any organization without a critical eye for problems and the willingness to improve. Assessment of a single proposal can result in actionable items generated from or resulting from the Lessons Learned Report. Further, it is the responsibility of management to collectively evaluate the overall effectiveness of the proposal process.

Performance indicators and metrics can and should be utilized for individual proposals and the set of proposals completed on a monthly, quarterly and yearly basis.

And again, employees must be re-trained on the improved procedures, work instructions, or work control documents, thus "closing the loop” and enhancing the likelihood of continual improvement.

Key: Capturing lessons learned in procedures will help ensure future success and avoid repeating costly mistakes.

Traps to Avoid

Death to Productivity/Creativity by Process

Procedures and work instructions should detail the minimum tasks to be accomplished. Personnel must be provided training giving them the skills and techniques to accomplish those tasks.

Keep procedures simple. Procedures and work instructions should be easy to comply with and show clear benefits when followed.

People Do What You Inspect, Not What You Expect – Hold Meaningful Reviews and Don’t Forget to Define Expectations

The results or output of a process or function that is not worth reviewing to verify its meaningful contribution to the development process will soon not be performed. Also remember, if the resulting expectations are not well defined related to the process work product, what is it you plan to review? Failure to define desired results or expectations leads to unnecessary work.

Set a Goal and They Will Meet It – Even to Their Own Detriment

Individuals will strive to meet goals used to measure their performance. Ensure the goal you set is:

  • Meaningful – Does the goal actually contribute to the overall productivity and success of the proposal group or the individual?
  • Measurable – Can the goal be objectively measured without being subject to interpretation?
  • Achievable:
    • Can the group or individual achieve the goal within the given time frame?
    • Does the group or individual have the skills to achieve the goal in the first place?
    • Are you willing for the group or individual to spend the time necessary to achieve the goal?

If the goal does not meet the above criteria, then achieving the goal may prove to be more detrimental to the overall groups or individual’s performance or moral.

This is My Turf – I Make the Rules Here

Almost everyone I have met in the professional world is a self-declared writing expert. If they have ever written a single proposal (memo or otherwise), they also tend to believe they are proposal experts.

Listen to them anyway. Who knows, they may actually have a lesson’s learned or an actual nugget of knowledge to help you out. Be open to new ideas.

If you do have to go on the offensive to prevent an inappropriate process rule or misguided concept being randomly applied, have a best practice with evidence to support your view.

Just Who is My Customer Anyway?

Is your customer the intended external organization targeted by the proposal? Or is your customer the new business development group or other internal organizations you work with, for, or support? Both! Everyone needs to understand the "How” and "Why” of your process, more specifically, how they benefit from it.

Mature organizations identify their internal customer and often create constructive conflict by having the internal customer assess the performance of their supplier (you, the proposal department). Thus the output of one process becomes the input of another process. Recognizing the internal customer is a key step in achieving continual improvement.

Don’t forget that you need to make your internal customers happy first. A process that produces high-quality, winning results but leaves too many bodies in its wake will soon have no one to support it.

Management Change or Loss of Key Personnel – Death by Firing Squad

No matter how successful you may be at incorporating or establishing best practices into your procedures, a change in management or the loss of key personnel that supported, believed, and/or championed your efforts may result in a total regression and removal of best practices.

This is known in organizational behavior as the "Brain Drain”. Organizations that are ISO/CMM compliant with well implemented procedures and work instructions will typically suffer less from such occurrences.

Additional ways in which an organization can protect itself is to issue monthly "whitepapers” by top management to ensure the organization knows exactly where a given department is regarding performance of its key metrics and indicators. This is one part of a "Knowledge Capture” program.

When this happens, go back to Step 1 above. Work to understand your management’s expectations and to gain management buy-in. Show them how the best practice resulted in improved productivity, quality, and win rates.

Conclusion

Processes should add value – if it does not – lose it or change it.

Upon completion of your procedure, there are a few additional steps you need to take:

  1. Relinquish ownership of the procedure – it is no longer yours; it belongs to the company and the proposal department.
  2. Ask for input and feedback from everyone affected – often. Build consensus and buy-in right away.
  3. Be able to explain the benefit or justify any given Proposal Best Practice.
    Remember from Step 2, Best Practices should either improve proposal quality leading to increased win rates or improve proposal development productivity. If the best practice does none of these, it is not a best practice.
    Also, you only may be able to add one or two best practices at a time. Be patient.
  4. Be ready to re-write major sections. Just because you think something should work one way, circumstances will almost always challenge your assumptions. There are many ways to accomplish any given task, explore them all with your team.
  5. Actively look for tasks that can be removed – then remove them.
  6. Become the resident proposal process expert.
  7. Make the effort to define your proposal process. Follow the process, measure the process, improve the process, and enjoy your success from the process!

Key: A bad process is better than no process at all. Even a bad process will help you understand what needs to change.

Bibliography

(1)        Al Kitlica, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Quality Applications, Inc., http://www.qualityapplications.com/  

Special thanks to the following for their input and advice during the creation of this whitepaper:

David Bol, Director of Quality, Shipley Associates
Elise C. Plaskett, PMP Quality Certification Specialist
Al Kitlica, CEO, Quality Applications, Inc.

Based on the White Paper: Proposal Best Practices: Fitting Best Practices into an ISO/Capability Maturity Model (CMM) Infrastructure, by Mitch Reed, PPM.APMP, May 28, 2007.

Tags:  Proposal Best Practice 

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