Demonstrating capacity

    By Bernie Siben, CPSM

    Like many who manage or write proposals to help A/E firms win new projects, I am well aware of how often a Request for Proposals (RFP) asks me to demonstrate my firm’s (or my client’s) capacity to complete the project as described in the solicitation’s Scope of Work. Now, with almost 39 years of experience in the A/E business, and having written, participated in, or managed more than 1,200 proposal efforts, I have found that the owner is generally asking the submitting firm to provide three different proofs that the firm:

    • knows how to do, and has recent experience doing, the work required to complete the project successfully;
    • has staff that includes all the technical disciplines required for successful completion of the project; and
    • has appropriate staff who will have sufficient man-hours available to complete the project.

    The experience that demonstrates Item 1 is shown in the descriptions of the relevant projects that you choose to share. It is sometimes difficult to know how many projects are enough to demonstrate this knowledge and experience. I generally try to show enough projects to cover all the potential technical elements of the project being pursued.

    In addition to textual descriptions highlighting the technical elements that are part of the project you are pursuing, include good photographs. If you don’t have images, consider sending someone to take a picture or using another project.

    In addition to text and images for each exemplary, it is often helpful to start the section with a “measles” chart (Figure 1). This visual gives readers a quick overview of your firm’s related capabilities and experience. In addition, since your measles chart can fill the page, it allows you to show many more projects with the relevant technical components and then present descriptions and images of just the five or six that are most relevant to the current pursuit.

    The proof for Item 2 can be demonstrated by providing a simple tabular listing of the firm’s staff by technical discipline, as shown in Figure 2. Some project owners appear to suffer from a paranoid fear that your firm’s staff will suddenly fall victim to a plague while working on their project, so they need to be reassured that, no matter how many people are out sick or otherwise unavailable, your firm will have enough additional staff to complete their project within the agreed-upon schedule.

    At one pre-proposal meeting I attended with a client for a relatively large municipal project requiring a fairly large technical team, the owner expressed a need to know that if our proposed civil engineer needed emergency surgery, a second civil engineer was on vacation, a third was fired, a fourth retired, and a fifth decided to accept another firm’s offer, we would still have at least one other civil engineer available to complete the project. I was flabbergasted!

    In my mind, Item 3 is the “kicker” — the one required proof that makes me scratch my head and wonder why they’re asking for this information in this manner because there is really no way to answer this question with any degree of accuracy.

    Consider Figure 3. In many A/E and related firms, this figure is most often referred to as a capacity chart. The purpose of this chart is to project the available man-hours of the firm’s current workforce through the project’s anticipated completion date. The chart purports to start with the Notice to Proceed being issued within just a few days, and extends through the anticipated completion date of the project.

    However, there are a number of things wrong with the information as presented in the chart, and they can be critical to how both the consultant and the owner perceive the team’s ability to complete the project on time. For example:

    • The project may not begin immediately or even soon, especially if it is a city, county, state, regional, or federal agency issuing the RFP. After issuance of the short list, there will probably be interviews and a process for the appropriate agency (city council, county commissioners’ court, etc.) to approve the selection. In fact, I have seen federal agency projects where the selection didn’t occur until a year after the proposal submittal date. And given the challenges of the negotiation process on a very complex project, Notice to Proceed might not be issued for an additional month or two after selection.
    • The solid line, separating the lighter blue section from the darker blue, represents allocated capacity decreasing and available capacity increasing as other tasks and projects are finished. It does not account for changes in schedule due to weather, permit delays, delays related to client reviews, or other factors — or for scope modifications that might add new technical requirements that result in the need for additional people to maintain the completion date.
    • The two dashed lines represent changes in the firm’s staffing levels during the project, most of which cannot really be anticipated with any accuracy. The upper line represents increases in staff as new professional, technical, and support staff are hired for other projects or to support firm growth. The lower line represents staffing losses due to people retiring, quitting, developing a catastrophic long-term illness, or being let go for a variety of reasons. Some of these changes might be predictable over the short term, but get more and more difficult to predict over the long term.

    Is it any wonder that, in many A/E firms, another name for this figure is the “going-out-of-business chart”?

    When responding to this question, you could provide a list of additional projects for which your firm has recently been selected and that are still being negotiated. This is, in effect, a statement that unspecified staff are now committed to additional projects but their schedules are not yet known.

    You could also provide a list of your recent proposals and their status (i.e., submitted, short-listed, etc.). This alerts the prospective client that there might be other commitments in the near future, but really gives them no relevant information because selection is not yet determined. You don’t want the owner of the project you are pursuing to decide that you really don’t have time to undertake their project, and then not win any of those other pursuits. I don’t recommend this action.

    One of the solutions I have used is to provide a list of the firm’s current projects with their anticipated completion dates. For this list, I provide major projects that are less than 50 percent complete and other projects that are 90 percent or more complete. This gives the client a feel for how busy the firm is without giving “actionable” numbers, and provides an indication of when each project will be complete and when those project staff will become fully available. But it still leaves the client feeling that we are definitely available to undertake their project.

    Bernie Siben, CPSM, is owner and principal consultant at The Siben Consult, LLC, an independent A/E marketing and strategic consultant located in Austin, Texas. Contact him at or at 559-901-9596.