How to ensure your proposal has impact

8th July 2015 / By Gary Bridgeman / Proposal development / Horizon 2020 / Smart Thinking / Leave a Comment

“Impact”

noun

/ˈɪmpakt/

1. the action of one object coming forcibly into contact with another. "there was the sound of a third impact"

2. a marked effect or influence. "our regional measures have had a significant impact on unemployment"

verb

/ɪmˈpakt/

1. come into forcible contact with another object. "the shell impacted twenty yards away"

2. have a strong effect on someone or something. "high interest rates have impacted on retail spending"

The impact section in a Horizon 2020 proposal causes a lot of problems for writers of Horizon 2020 projects. This has been a common complaint for many people, how do you quantify the impact that research will have? Research by its very nature is about investigating the unknown, how do you know what impact the unknown will have?

An oft-cited example of this very problem is the development of the laser, looking back now the application and impact of the laser is obvious. But at the time of development the potential use was unknown. In fact soon after Theodore Maiman built the first laser his assistant Irnee D’Haenens joked that the laser was “a solution looking for a problem”.

The context under which we are funding research now, is different from the public research funded in the 1950’s and 1960’s that lead to the development of the laser and other game changing innovations such as the transistor and computer. These all grew out of heavy corporate and government funding after the Second World War and in a time of cold war tensions. The mind set was optimism after the wide spread destruction of the war, tempered by the possible destruction by nuclear weapons.

Now we have optimism from the technological revolution tempered by several global challenges such as climate change, security, resource scarcity, and population growth.

Changing your perspective to improve your impact

Our mind set also needs to adapt to one that understands the political, economic, and global challenges that we face today. We are in a time where we need to do more with less, thus research-based innovation is deemed more important and more pressing for society that discovery-based research. People will argue that without research money going towards discovery we may miss something important. But innovation serves discovery just as well, the innovation of the microscope enabled us to discover bacteria for example.

This seems a long way round to arrive at advice on how to improve your impact of your proposal. But the impact your idea will have starts with how you’ve developed your idea. Your framework for Horizon 2020 has to be one of developing a market solution to cope with societal problems we face today. If you are struggling to describe your impact it may be because your idea, in its current form, isn’t right for Horizon 2020.

Under previous research programmes the research question came first, under Horizon 2020 the market need and innovation comes first, and you then have to engineer back to the research question. The chicken no longer comes before the egg when developing your idea for your proposal. And this is in fact a difficult culture shift for many researchers and research entities to achieve, and is probably one of the biggest unintended consequences that Horizon 2020 has caused.

Changing the way you need to think is massive task, whole industries exist trying to help people change ingrained behaviour patterns. Horizon 2020 moved the focus to delivering impact for citizens, rather than delivering grants for research. Impact was always there under previous research programmes, but you didn’t have to be so concrete in measuring it, you could be vague and talk about potential rather than quantifying your results immediately.

This is the paradigm that we are working under, and we can’t reverse the change now, and two stage proposals won’t help either. You can’t suddenly get people to think more about the impact by changing the process of application. And in fact you now introduce another problem that people don’t think about how they will execute their idea until a few months later. This delay means you lose momentum; you have to come back to the proposal, start it up again and work out how you will deliver your idea and impact. There is a very real danger that you were overoptimistic at stage 1, and now run into problems when thinking about delivery in stage 2.

As a researcher or research organisation what can you do?

The first thing is to accept that the rules of the game have changed, research funding is a political tool and while there may be some softening of the evaluation, we won’t be going back to the days of earlier research programmes. Unfortunately Horizon 2020 hasn’t been designed for discovery-based research, it is designed for innovation-based research.

You’ll need to develop your ideas more before they are submitted not less. To understand if your idea has impact and is innovative, you’ll need to start at the impact you want to achieve and work backwards. If your idea has been developed to achieve a certain impact, then it is easier to show the impact you are going to have. It really is that simple.

Research based innovation requires an innovation strategy

Innovation is a different process from discovery and you’ll need an innovation strategy for your research organisation. Without an innovation strategy your efforts may become a mix of different best practices, and it may be difficult for you to identify which ones are most efficient.

Your capacity for innovation comes from having a coherent set of process and structures that support how you search for novel problems and solutions. How you turn ideas into business concepts, product designs and select which research ideas are put forward for funding.

There are four essential challenges in creating and maintaining an innovation strategy.

  • Define how you expect innovation to create value for your organisation.
  • Then create a high level plan showing how you will allocate resources to developing innovation.
  • Next you need to manage trade offs, because in large organisations every business function will want to serve their own interests.
  • Lastly you need to understand that your innovation strategy will evolve over time.

Remember a strategy isn’t a process, a strategy is a way you’ll approach a particular challenge or goal. Your strategy will be unique to you and your organisation, it will need to serve your needs, this is why you shouldn’t copy innovation strategies from other companies. You need create a strategy unique to you.

And strategies need to change and evolve because they need to react to external and internal forces around you. Your process to select ideas isn’t coming up with great ones? Throw it out and choose a different process, the important point is that your strategy is to use a process that achieves the best result.

The research organisations that continue to win under Horizon 2020 won’t be the ones that complain about the low failure rates and difficulties in defining the impact. They will be the ones that adapt to the situation and rise to the challenge.

Ask yourself if you are not winning; is it really the system or you that is the problem?

Because somebody is winning, what are they doing that you aren’t?

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You control less than you think.

3rd July 2015 / By Gary Bridgeman / Proposal development / 1 Comments

Every day, shortly before nine o’clock, a man with a red hat stands in a square and begins to wave his cap around wildly. After five minutes, he disappears. One day, a policeman comes up to him and asks: “What are you doing?” “I’m keeping the giraffes away.” “But there aren’t any giraffes here.” “Well, I must be doing a good job, then.”

When you play any game that involves throwing dice, you’ll shake the dice harder if you want a high value, you’ll gently coax the dice onto the table if you want a low value. But it makes no difference how you throw the dice, the value that appears is totally random, if it did make a difference then casinos wouldn’t be such a good business to get into.

And it isn’t just dice games, we all suffer an illusion of control, that is we think we can control more than we actually do. In your office for example you’ll be too hot others will be too cold. We are all gloriously complex individuals, and clever heating engineers know this and install “placebo buttons” that create the illusion of control. The buttons aren’t actually connected to anything at all, but you believe you are controlling the temperature so you sit back at your desk happy and now colder or even perhaps warmer.

Where am I going with this and writing Horizon 2020 proposals?

The point is, that once the proposal is submitted you lose control on how that proposal will be read, consumed and understood. Before this point when someone else has read the proposal and they didn’t understand something, you could say “yes but..” and launch into an explanation of why the reader is too stupid to get your idea.

But once the proposal is submitted for evaluation, you lose control on how the proposal is understood. You have no idea if the evaluator has enough time to read your entire proposal. You don’t know if the evaluator is an expert in your area, speaks English as their first language or even has a positive viewpoint of your concept. The last point I know all too well when writing proposals that used the concept of gamification to help people perform better. Now that idea is gaining acceptance, but at first I had evaluators who just couldn’t accept that playing games can be of benefit to anyone.

When we write a proposal there are things we defiantly can control.

  1. What we apply for.
  2. When we submit.
  3. The clarity of the writing.
  4. The quality of the content and idea.
  5. The appearance and design of the document.

And that is about it, and to be honest that is enough to be getting on with. Each one of those areas is large enough for us to spend significant time and effort on making sure that we do the best job we can. But why then do I see so many examples of people not ensuring that they fully control each of these areas?

We submit when we aren’t ready under calls that aren’t relevant, we write hideously long complex torturous adverb heavy sentences with multiple clauses, that don’t make sense, and make it difficult for the reader to understand what is going on; that by the time they hit the full stop they forget what they were reading about in the first place.

We don’t spend the time thinking about what we are actually going to do, and how we are going to do it, we think that cutting and pasting in “boiler plate” content is acceptable to save time. We spend far too long talking about what a great idea we have, that we ignore the impact and how we are going to deliver it.

We believe that having too much information is better than the right information so we fill the proposal with content that is irrelevant or even irreverent. All presented in a font that is too small to read and now even our peer group struggles to read it and understand it, and they know what we are talking about already.

This here is the problem, we write for our peer group, but what we should do is write for the person least able to consume our writing. This holds true for every part of the proposal, because we can’t control the emotional state the evaluator will have when reading our proposal. Because the person least able to consume our writing, will be the person who has been stuck in traffic for 2 hours while some idiot thought he was directing giraffes.

Recently the commission talked about how they were going to improve the low Horizon 2020 success rates - like they think they have control - but the commission can’t control those five things above, you can. You want to improve your success rate? Then control those five items.

In fact items one, two, three and five are really easy to control, number four takes the time and effort to really excel. But unfortunately good ideas presented badly will always fail, whereas bad ideas presented well seem to be all around us. If you have a good idea, then take the time to present it well, anything else is a waste of time.

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Using smart thinking to develop your proposal #2

18th June 2015 / By Gary Bridgeman / Proposal development / Smart Thinking / Leave a Comment

If you write proposals or even manage any project, you’ll be aware of that feeling of never having enough time. This is especially true when you are developing a Horizon 2020 proposal. We see there is a fixed amount of time, so we build a project plan based on the deadline date and work backwards.

We plan for a draft one week before the deadline and allow plenty of time for those finishing touches. But in reality we never have enough time, and the little time we do have is reduced by unforeseen events, like the Internet failing just when you need it.

How to achieve the optimal result

Generally writing proposals consists of three distinct phases, Ideas are gathered (G), then Consolidated (C), and a concept is selected and Implemented (I).

The result optimisation model divides the time available into three equal loops. This forces you to develop your proposal three times. The idea is to improve the outcome after each loop. Approaching the proposal development this way gives a more successful output, but also a more successful feeling of accomplishment. At the end of the development, instead of feeling relieved that you’ve met the deadline, you have a three-fold feeling of achievement.

Result Optimisation model for proposalsComplete each cycle fully

The major risk is that you don’t complete each cycle fully. A draft isn’t a version that has parts missing; a draft is a version that has content in each section. And maybe even could be submitted, but we wouldn’t expect it to get a good evaluation. But however you do it, make sure you complete each loop properly otherwise the model loses its dynamic.

In between cycles you have a reviewing process that leads you to your next stage of gathering ideas, and you start the cycle again. You can use this model for any document or project. You can scale it up and down if you really think about it. The model is applicable for writing a paragraph, a section or a whole document. Or even a blog post ;-).

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Thoughts on winning an SME proposal

8th June 2015 / By Gary Bridgeman / 2 Comments

Recently Bernd Reichert, head of unit at the Executive Agency for SMEs, wrote in Science Business giving some tips on winning the SME instrument. Not one to miss an opportunity to also spout advice, here are my thoughts on winning a Horizon 2020 SME instrument proposal.

You may be thinking great, here is someone who has won an SME proposal and is about to release his formula for success. But you’d be wrong; I’ve yet to win one of these instruments, so far I have scored 9.31, 10.53, 11.15, 11.5, 11.77, and 11.74. These are all phase II applications and with the threshold being 12, I am frustratingly close.

Why take advice from me? If a professional proposal writer can’t win, then why should you even listen to what I have to say?

Well, the results above are in chronological order, I’m at least getting better at each round and learning from my mistakes. In fact we are all learning from our mistakes on Horizon 2020, it is a step change from FP7, anyone telling you they have impressive win rates are basing it on very limited data.

The programme has only been going for a little over a year, and there is no way to make accurate predictions. In fact, it is only at the end of the programme that my success rate becomes relevant, and then it is too late because we will be starting a new programme. Success rate is a poor indicator of a bid writer’s expertise, but that is the subject of another blog post.

What am I planning to do to improve my scores?

Firstly I am being more selective on the type of company and idea that they bring to the table. The company has to be in the right stage of development, the weak scores above didn’t fail on the excellence; they either scored low in impact or implementation. This tells me that we didn’t show that we understood the market well enough, and we weren’t clear that we could execute the idea.

A good candidate for a Phase II SME proposal is one where the company has been operating for 2 or 3 years. They have sales and growth in their home market, or they have developed a proof of concept, and a strong market feasibility study. Have probably already won national level innovation funding, and have committed investors.

You need to have a strong foundation already, if your application is based around an idea that has yet to be tested in the market. Then it is probably good to look at other funding methods. Or drop down to a phase I application first and collect the data required for a phase II application.

And this is the main point of this post; there are no shortcuts when it comes to developing your proposal. Any lack of concrete information will show up, thus have a clear idea of what your product or service is, who will be buying it, show that you have clear demand and clearly show why Europe needs your solution. Often companies have to pitch to investors several times before they get investment. Every time they pitch they learn more about their idea and readiness for investment. It is very rare that investors buy the idea on the first pitch.

You need to make sure that you have closed off all assumptions before you submit your proposal. In fact, if when applying for an SME phase II your attitude is ‘We need to win this to keep the company going’ then you aren’t ready to apply. It is a little bit like asking for a loan from a bank, you only get offered the money when you don’t need it. An SME instrument fund is not something you apply for when you are out of options for money, with the competitive nature of the instrument you may be disappointed. 

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Using smart thinking to develop your proposal #1

1st June 2015 / By Gary Bridgeman / Leave a Comment

As humans we are normally better when we use a systemic approach to our work and tasks. Think about building a house, you wouldn't start building walls until you have built some foundations. Preparing proposals is very similar, you have to start with a strong foundation before you even put your fingers to the keyboard. But sometimes we lack a method to really come up with the foundation of our proposal.

Being creative by being structured

Horizon 2020 asks us to develop and present innovative ideas, you may already have one and that’s great, but sometimes you are developing an idea to answer a particular call text. In fact many times we are collaborating with partners to develop an idea for a specific Horizon 2020 call. One approach to generate new ideas is the use of Zwicky’s morphological box, which is a method for understanding different relationships in complex systems.

The concept is fairly simple.

  1. Break down the idea into the different factors or requirements that make up the idea.
  2. Think of alternatives that can deliver the different factors.
  3. Combine the alternatives in new ways.

Some of the new combinations of alternatives will be uninteresting and not possible, but some will be novel and possible.

A worked example

All Horizon 2020 calls are structured around ‘challenges’ that are calling for a particular result or impact. You can use the method to come up with alternative ideas to meet the challenge. One open call at the moment is asking for new ideas to make science education and careers more attractive for young people. One way you could approach this is to scan the proposal text for keywords and phrases, and place these in the factors column. Then think of ideas that will deliver these factors, you can use other tools such as brainstorming to think of different alternatives. 

Factors/requirements Alternative 1 Alternative 2 Alternative 3
Innovative forward-looking science education methods. Implants feeding knowledge to the brain. Build a science open education platform that provides free education. Provide interactive textbooks for students.
Incentives to make science careers more attractive. Lower income tax for people pursuing science careers in the first 5 years of employment. Free toy given out in each science lesson. Provide free university places for students studying science.
Make the link between creativity and science. Recruit well know science champions and run social media campaigns. Put up posters in schools. Run a competition for the most creative science based solution to climate change.

Once you’ve produced all your alternatives, you can then select the best ones for each factor and combine them to provide your final solution to the challenge. From the example above you may develop a project that;

  • Builds an open science education platform.
  • Investigates the impact of lower income taxes for science careers.
  • Runs a media campaign using science champions.

Zwicky’s morphological box was developed in the 1960s, Zwicky applied this method to such diverse fields as the classification of astrophysical objects, the development of jet and rocket propulsion systems, and the legal aspects of space travel and colonization.

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Gender and Science under Horizon 2020

25th June 2014 / By Gary Bridgeman / 1 Comments

Gender in science – addressing the imbalance

Women continue to remain under-represented in many fields and professions of research across Europe. This is despite efforts to promote gender equality in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) positions.

As a father of a teenage daughter I worry that continuing gender stereotypes will put her off pursuing a scientific profession. And she has few role models to look up to; unfortunately this is the same for many women graduating today.

The lack of workplace flexibility to balance work and family life continues to have an impact on a young women’s decision to go into science and studies show that gender related bias, in part, also explains why men are more likely than women to hold more jobs in science related fields.

The European Commission encourages women into science

The European Commission has been trying to address this imbalance for some time. Initiatives such as the 2012 ‘Women in Research and Innovation’ campaign, the Science in Society Programme and other policy initiatives have been put in place to encourage more women into science and technology.

Workplace management

I’m a clear supporter of policy changes to enable/encourage more women into science and technology careers but there also needs to be a significant change in people’s attitudes in the workplace. Funding initiatives should educate current and future leaders, managers and staff on how to be effective and fair to all members of staff. Great companies and leaders consider the needs of their staff as individuals.

Supporting more women into STEM positions isn’t only about rules on team composition and marketing strategies. It is no good successfully encouraging women into the workplace if the workplace isn’t ready to receive them. Making sure we adopt modern business management techniques and change our work place environments are equally important.

Gender and science under Horizon 2020

New rules in the Horizon 2020 programme for research and innovation place a strong emphasis on gender balance. The idea is to ensure women are at the centre of how research and innovation will be funded going forward. These rules specifically encourage gender balance in research teams and decision making and in the analysis of research and innovation to make sure women’s needs are taken into account. Proposals which demonstrate a strong gender balance will be marked above those that fail to do so.

Horizon 2020 will be competitive. It amazes me how many consortia fail to maximise their chance of winning. Winning is about taking care of the details in your proposal. Not by being just good enough and there is a clear incentive to ensure gender balance in your research team. You can gain more marks by having a good gender balance.

Putting some glamour into science

The new programme under Horizon 2020 "Science for and with society" will focus on developing new ways of making science more attractive to young people and by encouraging research and innovation.

The programme hopes to bring science and innovation closer to society and to create a balanced research society. By bringing researchers, citizens, policy makers and industry together during the research and innovation process, it is hoped that this approach will encourage gender equality in both research process and content.

Get the right information

How gender equality will be integrated within the different calls under Horizon 2020 and how best it can be demonstrated in proposals, will be a key topic of discussion at the upcoming Gender Summit in Brussels. The summit provides a timely opportunity for those applicants wanting to discuss this important aspect of calls with experts.

The gender dimension is already integrated across 13 different programmes under Horizon 2020. It will be interesting to see how far these new rules work towards integrating the gender dimension into research to achieve more sustainable science, and specifically how this element will sit alongside other key Horizon 2020 objectives.

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Three reasons why your proposal may fail

13th May 2014 / By Gary Bridgeman / 1 Comments

When I first started writing proposals I failed, quite a lot in fact, and I still sometimes do. Apart from not meeting the eligibility criteria – one of the top reasons proposals fail – I have listed the 3 main pitfalls below.

Starting too late

Everything takes time and effort. For example, a Horizon 2020 innovation action is around 60-80 pages long. A good rule to apply is that each page of text takes about 4 hours to complete. That’s a maximum of 320 hours or 40 days work at 8 hours a day.

Time can be wasted chasing people who don’t meet deadlines. Horizon 2020 projects are big proposals, requiring the management of 5 to 10 partners. In addition, the communication overload arranging meetings can eat up time. It’s possible to submit a proposal in less than 40 days – but everything is a balance of time, quality and cost – spending less time may mean losing quality.

No vision

Great proposals have a vision – a vision of the future that they want to create – they sell that vision and then tell you how and what they are going to do to achieve it.

Most proposals start backwards – focusing on the “what” rather than the “why”. When you first come together as a proposal team, you have to think about your purpose. Why should the proposal exist in the first place? What is your greater purpose? Good proposals are inspirational.

Not building a proposal team

Horizon 2020 is about European collaboration and that means building an effective team. Great proposals come from great teams working together to deliver the best effort they can. All teams go through 4 stages:

  • forming
  • storming
  • norming
  • and performing

Good teams are well led, cooperate and meet face-to-face often to work together to achieve a common goal.

It’s important to bring the right people together and to invest in their skills. Ignore the ‘soft’ side of proposal development at your peril. You may get lucky once or twice – but in the long run you’ll lose more than you will win.

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Why you should or shouldn’t be involved in EU Horizon 2020 projects

21st March 2014 / By Gary Bridgeman / Leave a Comment

I was asked today to meet some companies and give my thoughts on the benefits and pitfalls of applying for European funding under Horizon 2020. It was a lively discussion and one attendee had been converted to the cause of Europe. Alas, this was before I gave my talk - but I would like to think that it removed the last bit of doubt in his mind.

Anyway, here are my thoughts repeated below for your benefit. I’ll start with the pitfalls first to make sure we end on a positive note.

It isn’t about the money

Well, yes of course that is a big part of being involved, but if that is your only reason for applying, then perhaps you need to look elsewhere. People are always surprised when I say this, but your chances of winning - even with a good bid writer - are around 10% at best. Anyone that tells you otherwise isn’t telling you the whole truth. If your only measurement of success is winning then prepare to be disappointed. 

It’s going to cost you money

No matter which way you cut it, being involved is going to cost you money. That might be real cash - paying for equipment - or indirectly paying your staff. Before you even win you have to develop the proposal, this is real time and effort. And you are either paying a consultant or paying your staff, good bids don’t write themselves. 

If you win, even at a 100% funding, you need to cash flow the project. While staff are working on the project they aren’t working on generating revenue. Also, a 25% flat rate overhead isn’t going to cover all those costs you incur running your business. Lastly, you’re not allowed to make money on government funded projects which pretty much rules out any final hope you had.

You need to play the long game

You’ll get the most benefit out of Horizon 2020 projects by staying involved over a number of years. Getting involved has to be a strategic decision that you make for your company or organisation. And like many strategic decisions it will take time to pay off - you may have to take a few losses before you see a return.

The upside - is there one?

Yes there is, and the main benefit is the exposure and collaboration with other companies and enterprises. Research agencies gain access to a wider body of knowledge and expertise while private companies should view Horizon 2020 as paid business development. You’ll have the chance to build business trust with potential customers and suppliers.

It’s the economy

Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn (Research, Innovation and Science) points out that the US, South Korea, Japan and Singapore all have more intense spending than the EU bloc. People sometimes question the link between R&D spending and economic growth but it isn’t easy to spot which ideas will turn into future economic success.

Inventions such as GPS, magnetic resonance imaging and the internet all grew out of basic research ideas. And some inventions like the laser weren’t seen as useful when first conceived but without it we wouldn’t have fast fibre optic broadband internet.

It’s not the winning but the taking part that counts

The opening day of the Horizon 2020 grants in December 2013 saw 70,000 forms being downloaded every hour. That is a lot of people interested in funding. Even if you don’t win your first attempt, the proposal development process can be as beneficial as the outputs of the final project.

The companies that make the most from being involved in Horizon 2020 are the ones that commit the time and effort to develop good proposals. This means getting around a table and examining in detail your idea or project. A process which alone allows you to build new business partners and generate new opportunities for revenue.

Human technical advancement never has been as exciting as it is now. I think it is exciting and I am looking forward to seeing the results of European collaboration.

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