The 7 steps of successful project pursuit

Mar 19, 2018


Time is a luxury AEC teams do not have. And time spent on a losing effort drains resources, morale, and bandwidth on existing projects.

Time is the enemy of project pursuits. Client demands, project schedules, and marketing teams stretched to the limit prevent AEC teams from putting their best foot forward in proposals and interviews.

Developed while preparing more than 200 teams for project interviews, “Seven Steps of Successful AEC Project Pursuit” addresses issues that prevent teams from preparing effectively. These steps – when implemented – enable teams to create a unique strategy and stick to it, build original content instead of using a boilerplate, and deliver the best possible proposal and interview.

Before the proposal:

1. Know the client. Teams often focus on the project’s obvious needs (anyone ever heard about staying on budget and on schedule?) and miss the big picture. What are the client’s business reasons for doing this project? Who are the client’s customers? What is the biggest concern of each person on the selection panel? Keep asking “so that …” to drill down to what really matters. “The headquarters needs to be done on time so that … the 100 new hires arriving in April will have a place to work.” “The building needs to be completed within its budget so that … the developer can sell it in five years as planned and invest the profit into their next project.” Stick to the project’s obvious needs and you come across as a “box checker.” Tap into why the project is happening (and how you can help) and you become a strategic partner. Guess which team is more likely to be shortlisted and win the interview?

2. Know the competition. Firms can tie themselves in knots obsessing about their competition. To avoid getting sucked into a never-ending “What if they ...” loop, ask yourself, “What are the biggest strengths and weaknesses of each firm?” Then push your strengths and compensate for your perceived weaknesses. Factor in whether the competing firms have done work for this client or this project before and you’re good to go. We advise teams to limit their time on this step to no more than 30 minutes.

3. Develop a unique strategy. What strategy will you present in the proposal and (hopefully) the interview? This is often the hardest step, especially when the biggest factor is cost. To find your “golden thread,” ask yourself these questions:

  • What can we say and do that our competitors cannot?
  • What specific lessons learned from past projects will be applied to this project?
  • How will our work on this project contribute to solving the client’s biggest needs or concerns?

The key is in the details. Selection panels tell us over and over that they read and hear the same general statements. The panel already knows what you do. Tell them how you do it using real steps, phases, people, places, and processes to be memorable. For a school renovation project where the client valued the safety of students on the site above all else, a team went beyond the usual “safety is our #1 priority” language in the proposal. The superintendent described how he looks at safety from multiple viewpoints – through the eyes not only of able-bodied students but also of those who use wheelchairs or those who are sight-impaired. He wrote about putting himself in the shoes of a tired, inattentive student trudging to class on a dark morning with headphones on. After viewing the site from multiple perspectives, the team explained how they would design the site to keep the building secure and paths around it safe. The team’s unique strategy of applying the best possible safety practices helped them get shortlisted (and win the project).

After being shortlisted:

4. Develop an interview outline. Decide who will address which topics and the amount of time they have based on the interview guidelines. Build the outline on a shared drive so everyone can see each other’s progress (or lack of progress). As team members fill in their sections with notes and ideas, they can see what other ideas are being developed. We encourage team members to record their practices and upload them for sharing as well. This prevents the silo approach, where everyone is off in their own corner preparing, coming together only at the end.

5. Create needed visuals. Many AEC firms start the interview prep process by looking for visuals from other project pursuits. The result is that the slides or images feel like a square peg in a round hole. Visuals must do work you cannot do yourself. When developing the outline, ask yourself how visuals can support your presentation, not lead it. Remember: The client is not hiring your PowerPoint deck – they are hiring you!

6. Plan for the Q&A and interactive exercises. While the Q&A section of the interview is still standard, panels are turning to unusual formats and interactive exercises to differentiate teams. One recent interview we prepared a team for used a third-party facilitator as an intermediary for the team and client. To prepare, ask yourself:

  • Do you have a go-to process for answering whatever questions or exercises the panel throws at you?
  • How will you create interaction and smooth transitions between team members and between team and panel members?
  • What questions can you ask the panel that will demonstrate your knowledge of the project and their business needs?

Teams often try to guess the questions and memorize answers. But panels rarely ask the exact question you planned for, so the memorized answer often misses the mark. Check out “Three Strategies to Nail the Q&A” and “Five Tips to Master Impromptu Scenarios” to learn more.

7. Practice! To many teams, practice means sitting around the conference table debating strategy and discussing how they intend to answer questions – but without actually delivering their answers. Real practice means rearranging the room to match the interview room, using co-workers as stand-ins for panel members (complete with name tags of whom they represent), filming, and playing back the recording. Presenters should use only the notes they will bring to the interview (notecards or none), and visuals should be near-final and used in the run-throughs. This is where the valuable revisions happen, where you see how much time you are using, and where you can smooth out your transitions.

Time is a luxury AEC teams do not have. And time spent on a losing effort drains resources, morale, and bandwidth on existing projects. Apply the Johnston Training Group “Seven Steps of Project Pursuit” to your process to make the best use of your precious proposal and interview time.

Scott Johnston is a principal strategist and facilitator at Johnston Training Group. He can be reached at

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.