You control less than you think

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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