When Your Proposal Goes Sideways

Have you ever worked through a twisty proposal process—the kind where your client team changes their mind a few times and you reposition the work, maybe even more than once?

Then you know that feeling—relief!—when it’s out of your hands and safely delivered to the client.


After the heat of the process is behind you, you start thinking about that final version. And the dread sets in:

Did I really just commit to that scope of work—how am I going to do that with my other commitments?


What was I thinking—why did I propose all that executional work when my real forte is strategy?


Wait a minute—did I charge enough for this project? How much am I actually making after adjusting for paying the contractors I had to bring in when we re-scoped?


What did I just propose? No way their lack of a coherent business structure (insert any big obstacle to your success) isn’t going to bite us.

—or even—

(Head slap) My dream client just asked me for help and I have no wiggle room with this other proposal hanging over my head.

No doubt if you’ve been doing this long enough at least one of those scenarios hits home.

So what do you do when your proposal goes sideways?

You wrangle the beast like the pro that you are.

One client—let’s call her Portia—experienced all five with just one proposal.

It wasn’t that she hadn’t had inklings that this wasn’t the right fit. It was that she’d made a series of small decisions—each with the best intentions—that led her to a proposal she deeply regretted.

(Sidebar: When you’re wired to help your client, you’ll sometimes make the wrong decision for you in the heat of the moment. The good news is that this is reversible—not to mention an excellent learning opportunity).

After some thinking, Portia realized that:

Her initial assessment that this might be a marquee client was off—yes, they had a highly recognizable name, but their size and structure was not something she wanted to replicate.

Her main client (one she’d known in another life) wasn’t ready to address the organization’s dysfunction around the founder—and that dysfunction was highly likely to derail the proposed work at some point.

To address a CEO concern, they’d added a chunk to the proposal that required Portia to bring in an outside specialist—ultimately cutting her portion of the fees by about half.

She already knew she didn’t “need” the work, but hadn’t really felt that at a visceral level until an ideal client knocked and she realized she couldn’t serve both.

So Portia decided to back out of this proposal.

No, it’s not fun and will require some finesse.

But she’s not willing to ignore a bad situation when she can still do something about it.

Let’s face it: sometimes proposals—like life—go sideways. It’s what you do with that knowledge that makes all the difference.

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