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Just read the bloomin' question!

For those of you who have attended any of the courses I have run, please forgive this re run of an anecdote I use quite a lot!

A million years ago (actually, it was probably 35 years ago, but it seemed a lot longer!) I was working as a freelancer as part of a bid team in a defence contractor, based in Essex. The company was pitching for the manufacturing of bits on a new howitzer for the UK army, and they were supremely confident!

So confident, in fact, that they didn't see the need to worry about the Pre Qualification Questionnaire (PQQ) in general, or the need to concern themselves about those pesky questions! It was a formality in their case that they would be asked to bid, surely! After all, they had a win rate of some 30% and they were well known in the sector; one that successfully operated in for many years. The glow of success shone all around, a bit like the 'glory' of the Three Shepards, as they watched their flocks.

So it was, until a wily old Bid Manager came on the scene. Lets call him Doug, for privacy's sake.

Doug was hugely experienced. He had worked in Marconi from the late sixties until '87 when it became GEC Marconi. After that, he had moved around, settling with this company hoping to see his time out. He had seen it all. Indeed, one of the younger members of the bid team suggested that he had been in Boudicca's bid team, given his age! We weren't too concerned at being ageist in those days, and how we all laughed. But not for long.

Doug was, if nothing else, thorough. Some might say he was a pedant. But, he knew what he wanted and planned to get it. PQQs, a relatively new thing at the time, were no different.

The PQQ duly arrived as per the plan. Doug reviewed it, and we were all notified. A date was set for us to gather to start answering the questions collectively.

We gathered at 0930hrs on the day in question, ready to go. Amazingly, in walked Doug ...with a Magnum of Moet et Chandon! Most of us must have thought, as I did, that things were definitely looking up. Dear old Doug was getting soft!

Doug solumnly addressed the team. "I have here a short warm up test to get us all in the mood for answering the PQQ," he said.

We groaned. Everyone looked around, not sure what the hell was coming next!

He continued. "I'll give you each a sheet of simple calculations. There are only ten on the sheet. When I say go, turn the sheet over and do the calculations. The first person to finish and get them all correct, wins the champagne!"

He counted down ponderously, like an old schoolmaster. "Five, four, three, two, one ...go!" He slammed his hand on the table as he said 'go'. We turned the sheet over and fevourishly raced ahead.

Now, I pride myself that I am quite quick at these things. I looked at the first sum. Two times two! Wow, so easy! Four. I wrote it down and ploughed on furiously.

On I went and, finishing the ten sums, sat up and raised my hand. The rest quickly followed too. But I had clearly won. I basked in my moment of 'Freelance' glory!

"Right," said Doug. "The first answer, two times two, is Did we all get that?"

Doug looked at me quite pointedly and then we all looked at each other in turn. Then someone pleaded "Come off it, Doug. You're 'avin a laugh aint ya? (Remember, we were in Essex!) It's four. Everyone knows that!"

Doug was now at his pedantic best. "Have you read the question?" he said, index finger raised, as if to make the point. It dawned on us slowly, but all too clearly.

At the top of the paper, the question instruction ran as follows. 'In the following calculations, the multiplication sign is to be replaced by the minus sign and the minus sign, by the multiplication sign.'

None of us had read the question. Doug's Magnum was safe!

But he made the point only too well. "Read the bloomin' question ...RTBQ", he said.

And that was the very point he was making. Many of us do not 'RTBQ', particularly where PQQs are concerned, and particularly when we're on a roll. When you receive a PQQ, or you are answering a question in an ITT, 'RTBQ'! You might think you are supremely confident in a quick response, but take time to read the questions carefully.

Despite making me feel incredibly stupid, Doug did me a great service. His point was, take your time and carefully analyse each question in detail. Allow your colleagues to do the same. They may deduce something that you might not have seen. Make time to discuss each in detail. Work out what an Evaluator is looking for.

35 years ago it may have been, but Doug's lesson never left me!

Here are some simple things to consider when answering PQQ questions:

  • Always spend time analysing the PQQ question for key words. What are the evaluators really looking for?

  • Encourage colleagues to engage in discussion about each PQQ question.

  • Avoid the Pavlovian response to a PQQ question. Don't just identify a key theme or word in the question and then write everything you know about the topic in a splurge!

  • Look for every directing verb, such as 'will', 'must' etc. Make sure you comply with what is being asked for in the question.

  • If you have space and can accommodate everything within a word limit (always a nuisance!), use a format that sets the reader up for what they will see in your answer, answer the question and then summarise the content to tell the reader what they have read.

  • Do you know any of the evaluators? If you know that a particular evaluator is likely to review your PQQ answers, consider if your approach reflects this in the answer. For example, if the PQQ question relates to the environment, and you know that an evaluator is particularly active within the environmental sector, make sure your answer takes this into account.

  • Be concise and take time to edit your answers carefully.

  • Unless you are specifically told not to. don't be afraid to use emboldened Informative Headings that will guide the evaluator through your answer. Remember that Informative Headings are probably the first aspects of an answer that will catch the reader's eye.

  • Consider the use of graphics and relevant pictures (not eye candy) to deliver key messages with proper captions.

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