Why You Should Build the Project Plan Around Your Client’s Viewpoint

The Work Breakdown Structure Reflects Your Client’s NeedsWe lost the bid. But first the story…

Our proposal team was working on an important bid. The Request for Proposals (RFP) called for a detailed Project Management Plan to augment the vendors’ offers.

Developing work plans was my forte! I reviewed the required deliverables and structured them into the Project Management Plan as definitive work products. I laid out the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) as logically as any Microsoft Project® veteran would do, decomposing it into lower- and lower-level detailed components. Phases, activities, tasks, milestones and critical path – all documented precisely. Over 3,000 lines of WBS in the proposed Project Management Plan, printed on 11×17 sheets of paper, folded neatly into each copy of our proposal. It was a thing of beauty, sure to garner maximum scoring points.

We lost the bid. No, not because of the project plan; but I was disappointed that my labor of love, my prescription for project success, my flowing Gantt charts and corresponding descriptions of work did NOT achieve the maximum scoring points. I went back to the RFP. I reviewed the project plan against what had been requested. I had dotted every “i” and crossed every “t”. Technically speaking, my proposed WBS answered the mail. Yet the proposal evaluation committee found places to score lower.

We decided to do what any smart consulting organization would do. We asked for copies of our competitors’ proposals, and scheduled a post-award conference with the evaluation committee. When our competitors’ proposals arrived, I eagerly opened the winning proposal to the section containing their Project Management Plan. I noted that the winning vendor had received the maximum points for this section. I rubbed my hands in anticipation. This would a useful learning tool for me to improve future responses.

You don’t want to know what I uttered next as I reviewed their plan. I felt that we had been cheated somehow. Their Project Management Plan contained a mere 200 lines of WBS, decomposed in the most amateurish way. The descriptions of work to be executed were vague. The Gantt chart was displayed on two pages and, might I add, copied crookedly onto the pages. Where my plan was a technical work of WBS art; theirs was, in my opinion, substandard and incomplete.

I started to read their response, intending to take copious notes in preparation for our upcoming conference with the client’s proposal evaluation team. I was three lines into the first paragraph when it hit me. Our competitor had clearly laid out, not so much a technical response, but a response that played to the overall intent of the client’s RFP. The winning vendor was able to convince the client that they would meet the client at its point of pain. Clearly this vendor knew this client. Clearly this vendor knew what the client was looking for, and described precisely and concisely how the project would be executed to maximize the client’s success in the minimum amount of time.

But only 200 lines of WBS?

Yes, that’s all they needed. Heck, even I was convinced.

Would my 3,000 line, technically proficient project work plan have done the job?

Yes. But it wasn’t enough to sell the job. Our entire proposal team had been single-minded in our focus on meeting the client’s RFP exactly – technically. From a process perspective. Only our Executive Summary described how we would help the client be successful.

Our competitor beat us fair and square in each of the scored sections of their proposal, because they appealed to the people aspects of Project Management. They showed the client how they would take them through the entire project to a successful solution with which the client would be delighted. Technically speaking, their response was not as good as ours; but from the people aspects of convincing the client that they could do the job, it was a masterpiece.

What can we as Project Managers take from this?

Here’s what I learned. I learned that we can’t always hide behind the technical proficiency of a well laid out WBS. Yet we so often do. We often spend so much time in developing the task decomposition – carefully overlapping tasks to gain efficiencies along the timelines, carefully refining estimates for task completion, carefully building in lead and lag and slack time – that we forget why we are developing such detail in the first place. Are we there to deliver a perfect project plan, or are we there to deliver an excellent solution?

What if we spent 80 percent of the time we normally take to develop the project plan to truly understand our client needs? Am I advocating for a sloppily laid out WBS that only vaguely guides our work effort? Not at all. A logically derived, well-constructed WBS is one of those foundational project structures that is absolutely necessary. But so often we spend our time in developing a WBS that is painstakingly detailed to the nth degree, only to find that we are soon re-baselining it every time the client sneezes.

What I am advocating is that we develop a technically adequate project plan in far less time than we normally spend, and use the time saved to work with the client on defining what a successful project looks like from the client’s perspective! You’ll find that the time is better used, and future baselines of your project plan will be better for it.

There is never an excuse to hide behind an elegantly derived, technically proficient Project Management Plan. The project will always be better served by carving out the time to address the people aspects of Project Management in understanding your client better.

After all, one can only take so much WBS.


Merv Jersak
If you want your IT projects to come in on time and within budget; if you want your clients to be your best ambassadors and your project teams to be committed to your success; if you want to stop leaving money on the table – then Merv Jersak is the mentor and coach who will work with you to help attain the results to which you aspire. With more than 40 years’ experience as an IT Project Management and systems consultant, Merv works with IT solution providers and end-user organizations, focusing on the people aspects of project delivery to drive more profit to the bottom line and to have fewer budget overruns.

To learn more about Merv’s service offerings, or to hire him to speak to your organization, visit www.PeopleFirstProjectManagement.com.

EMAIL merv@PeopleFirstProjectManagement.com // LINKEDIN www.linkedin.com/in/mervjersak

52 Project Management Success Tips from Merv Jersak  •  Copyright ©2020. All rights reserved.