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  • Writer's pictureTristan Wilson

Why preparation prevails in the project acquisition process

19 seconds...

That was the difference between victory and defeat.

A month earlier, I had been assigned as the Estimator for a 40,000 ton airport asphalt project. There was noticeable excitement in the bid room as we had enjoyed recent success on airfield work. At the time, I often waited until the last minute to complete tasks and took cavalier pride in the “excitement” of cutting it close. I worked late into the night before the bid review because I had mismanaged my time that week. An addendum/bid revision was issued requiring our chosen subcontractors to sign forms and submit them

with our bids. This was an uncommon practice. I sent the forms out the day before the bid without explicit completion or deadline instructions. Our bid was due at 10 AM and signed forms trickled into my inbox that morning. I received the last form at 9:40 AM and began scanning our bid in a panicked state. The scanner operated slowly as our administrative team member who was assisting me radiated sheer terror. After the PDF was uploaded onto the bidding platform and the submit button was clicked, it was 10:00:19. The phrase “Bid Not Accepted” flashed on the screen. We learned a few minutes later that we would have been the lowest bidder had I submitted our bid on time.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld stated that “pain is knowledge rushing to fill a void”. Knowledge that I had personally cost our company a $6.5 million bid immediately rushed to fill my void. I was devastated and felt that my career was over. I had worked hard for the prior 11 years to establish myself professionally as a trusted team member who could be counted on to lead and deliver. Management was made aware of the issue. In shock, I walked outside, away from where I thought anyone could see me. My emotions overwhelmed me as reality set in. My hands shook and I became sick to my stomach. I knew there would be repercussions, and no one could be more angry at me than I was at myself for the problem I created. My boss’ boss then approached me, put his hand on my shoulder, and calmly told me that this could be the best learning experience of my career depending on how I chose to handle it. With red eyes and a sniffle, I looked him in the eye and told him “You may be right, but it sure doesn’t feel like it right now"! Is it not true that what feel like the lowest moments in work and life often become the ones that bring about the greatest change and set us up for later success?

I apologized to the team for putting us in that situation. I was quite humbled. It took some time for me to recover, aided by a strong support network and an incredible group of coworkers. In reality, I had been given 30 days to prepare that bid. 30 days x 24 hours per day x 60 minutes per hour x 60 seconds per minute = 2,592,000 seconds. So, around 2.6 million seconds is what was afforded, and I chose to wait until the literal last seconds to submit the bid. It never should have gotten that close. The challenge was clear: Learn from this and improve my behavior or face serious consequences. I vowed from then on to implement a personal accountability system based on writing things down, scheduling deliverables and activities in advance, accomplishing tasks as early as possible, and ridding my life of procrastination. Over the following weeks and months, my productivity increased as my stress plummeted due to tasks not piling up. Our team won more bids and performed well on the jobs. We submitted bids the day before the actual bid due date. I never again worked on a bid at odd hours. Around a year later, I was fortunate to earn a promotion to run the division. I shared my experience with incoming managers so that they understood how fundamental preparation was to our success.

The following 5 practices do not include all preparatory project acquisition activities. These are philosophies and practices intended to help improve a contractor's process.

Delegate and Schedule Quickly

Outlining roles and responsibilities for an upcoming bid as quickly as possible gives the team foresight and the ability to plan their work, especially when multiple Estimators are bidding a large project together. Scheduling bid reviews weeks in advance signals commitment and increases likelihood of key invitees participating. We will cover iterative bid reviews later in this series.

Prepare for Obstacles Through Systemization

In Great By Choice, Jim Collins and Morten Hansen analyzed two teams competing to be the first to reach the North Pole in 1911. The team led by Roald Amundsen lived with eskimos and prepared for the worst by developing contingency plans for practically everything. They also committed to daily progress regardless of weather conditions.

Alternatively, Robert Falcon Scott led the other team and scoffed at the planning because he believed sheer determination would overcome their hurdles. Both teams made it to the North Pole, with Amudsen’s team 34 days ahead. Tragically, Scott’s entire team died on their return trip.

Building time buffers and making contingencies for things to deviate from plan relieves pressure. Estimates started late and rushed are often higher than the actual cost to perform the work, which will lead to lost opportunities. Extra time frees up resources to conduct a job drive through with a Superintendent or investigate an item in greater detail. Bid submission checklists are excellent tools to ensure consistency.

Celebrate Deep Work

An Estimator given the freedom to work in blocks of time with minimal distraction will formulate a better estimate more quickly than someone who is barraged with meetings, notifications, texts and emails. Estimating is not merely running calculations. This is immensely creative work done by some brilliant minds. As Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, might suggest: Tune out the noise, and do meaningful work in chunks every workday.

Burning the Midnight Oil is Not Cool

Early in my career, I took catnaps at my desk while pulling all nighters. This behavior was utterly ridiculous as it was a simple personal choice to be unprepared. Hard work to master one’s craft is great. But it does not have to be done that way. We must accept responsibility for our time and outlining our expectations of others. Our bodies need sleep to properly function cognitively. It can be challenging when multiple complex DOT bids are all due on the same day in the market. In an industry that is struggling to attract Generation Y and Z employees who aspire for more balance, contractors cannot afford to exacerbate this by creating an environment where working regular 16+ hour stretches becomes commonplace. It is avoidable if things are planned ahead.

Process Over Results

7 National Championships, 10 SEC Championships, and 269 wins. Personal or collegiate preferences aside, no one can argue that Nick Saban has not built a phenomenal college football head coaching resume. Coach Saban is known for his counterintuitive “process” that stresses detachment from results (e.g. score of the game) and instead focuses one’s effort on doing the job that you control. Preparation and discipline are oddly more important than winning. In highway construction, if we only show gratitude when a bid is won, then we may unintentionally encourage employees to become married to the results or fearful of failure instead of learning and improving their process. Winning a bid by a little bit feels awesome, and losing by a few bucks can burn. Consider applauding the effort that goes into a great bid regardless of the results and focusing attention on “the process” instead.

Preparation separates the best in any endeavor. At Edgevanta, we are building a technology to help equip our customers with the tools they need to be most prepared in the project acquisition cycle. We look forward to hearing your feedback as we continue our journey through the following 8 fundamentals:

1. Preparation

2. Understand the contract, specifications, drawings, and owner deeply

3. Takeoffs

4. Know your true cost

5. Creative and candid team debate in bid review process

6. Communication with key vendors

7. Define organizational success

8. Know the market through analytics


Tristan Wilson

CEO and Founder

Edgevanta, LLC

This is part 2 of a multi-part series on the project acquisition component of the construction cycle for highway contractors.


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