Meaningless Use: The Lighter Side of Health IT

By Mike Farahbakhshian

In this article, Mike Farahbakhshian won’t tell you how to make it big during proposal season, but he will tell you how to stay sane. Life’s a marathon, not a sprint. Suggested drink pairing: Charm City Meadworks Wildflower draft.

Start your Engines, It’s Kill Season

Greetings, Meaningless Usetronauts!
(Mental note: Pick a better name for your fans.)

Usetronauts, we are about to enter Federal procurement season, aka “Kill Season.”

It is the only time of year where all elements of the Federal Health IT community — growth, delivery, and technical — join together to harmoniously despise each other under high-pressure situations and extreme sleep deprivation. It’s the closest thing your average dumpy, privileged white-collar desk jockey gets to SERE school, except the coffee is better and the grammar is worse.

I’m not going to write a guide to crafting the best proposals. My wisdom focuses on staying sane. Kill season is a marathon, not a sprint. Walking out the other end with your health and sanity is the real victory.

Now, you might want to know what qualifies me to impart these life lessons. I’ll have you know that that I am an expert on acquisition rules, thanks to a little book I bought back in the 90’s:

Related picture.

So, put on your Trekkie hats and blow off your Red Shirts Teams, because it’s time for…

Rule #183: Tailoring “reuse material” takes 80-120% of the time spent creating something from scratch.

Rule #1: Preparation Equals Sunk Cost. Learn From Advertising. Take Improv Classes

It doesn’t matter how much prep you’ve done. The final solicitation will have a sort of twist that leaves you reeling. Most people relate the prep to the size of the opportunity, but pre-work is an investment that levies a sunk cost upon the capture and proposal process. It’s not a bad thing to do pre-work, but understand that the more pre-work you do, the more committed you get to your solution and the writing and the more reticent you will be to adjust it. This can have terrible consequences for agility, especially in light of Q&A responses and amendments.

“Proactive” is a word used to sell goods and services. The actual creative process, in the corporate world, is much more reactive and improvisational, using a “yes, and” mentality. I strongly recommend improv classes for anyone who is deeply involved in the proposal process. It is a must for solutions architects. For folks in the DC area, I am going to plug Unified Scene Theater DC here. Shawn, the owner and artistic director, is amazing and I cannot speak more highly of him.

The better you are at improvising, the less you trap yourself into a sunk cost fallacy of bad ideas and stilted writing.

Rule #2: Solutions Architect: Chaos Muppet. Proposal Manager: Order Muppet

The theory of Order and Chaos Muppets is key here. Everyone is either an Order Muppet (organized, regimented, deliberate, risk averse) or a Chaos Muppet (disorganized, spontaneous, unpredictable, innovative) and that the balance of Order to Chaos Muppets is critical in any activity.

Your Solutions Architect

Solutions architects should be Chaos Muppets. Anyone worth his or her salt must possess three qualities:

  1. They self-medicate their latent ADHD with caffeine and/or nicotine, constantly.
  2. Their Myers-Briggs will tend toward “NT,” usually INTJ or ENTP.
  3. They will not be details people. They instead will possess a savant-like ability to link useless facts together. Their thought process must impart a strong sense that newspaper clippings and yarn were involved.

Your Order Muppet

Proposal managers need to be Order Muppets. This is critical for compliance and cat herding. They must possess three qualities:

  1. They will be perpetually frazzled. Their life may consist of notes put into a spreadsheet, Notepad, or sticky notes.
  2. They will be incredible details people. They will possess a savant-like ability to spot grammatical, stylistic or typographical errors, or compliance issues from a mile away, but will not see the big picture at all.
  3. They will have very, very strong opinions on the Oxford Comma.
This. You want this.

Pairing an Order and a Chaos Muppet together is wise. To ensure a fruitful proposal season, be sure to maintain a 1:1 pairing. Keep your SMEs as Chaos Muppets, and your tech writers as Order Muppets, and you will be just fine.

Rule #3: Don’t Run Your Engine on Nitroglycerin

Seven observations from nearly two decades of proposal work:

  1. Your brain is an engine. It must run smoothly and can’t run for too long without degrading.
  2. Blood sugar spikes are the enemy of productive solutioning. Low glycemic foods are gasoline. Sugar is nitroglycerin. Don’t run your engine on nitroglycerin.
  3. Solutioning sessions lose steam when they go over three to four hours. Don’t run your engine for too long.
  4. Breaking for meals or drinks violates #2 and #3 and wastes time.
  5. Teleconferences waste time with video and voice issues and half-duplex cross-chatter.  Do it in person if possible.
  6. Two half-assed solution sessions do not one full-assed solution make. If anything, people think they covered something in the last session and will be lazier in criticizing or refining it this time around.
  7. Order Muppets need to put away their phones. Chaos Muppets should be allowed to check their phones, but only once every 20-30 minutes. A good rule of thumb is your Chaos Muppet can only check their phone every time they refill their coffee.

All this adds up to: Morning solution sessions. 8am-noon is best. There’s lots of coffee and any food provided would be relatively light. Keep your Muppets productive and caffeinated in a well-lit, low-glycemic and distraction-free environment. One note regarding coffee: cold brew coffee concentrates are often meant to be diluted. Don’t learn that fact the hard way. (Picture unrelated.)

Rule #4: Make Sure Your Writing/ Reviewing Music is Actually “MUSIC”

I’m not telling you what genre of music to listen to while writing. I’m not that kind of hipster. But within each genre, there are certain elements you want. MUSIC here is an acronym: Minor Keys, Undulating rhythm, Staccato lyrics, Ignorable Content.

A quick explanation: The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis posits that language shapes thought and mood. (The entire study of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) is based on this.) Likewise, studies show that music affects mood and mindset. It makes sense to have music that gets you a little on edge (Minor keys) to increase alertness, while maintaining a regular, driving rhythm to keep you on pace (Undulating rhythm). It makes sense to have rapid fire, clearly understood lyrics that stimulate and potentiate the linguistic centers of the brain (Staccato lyrics), while being ignorable enough that you can focus on your proposal (Ignorable Content). Genre is irrelevant, but I’ll give a few examples of what I use and under what circumstances. Warning: some songs have explicit lyrics.


State your proposal should be at
Pre-Red Red Gold White Glove
Actual state of your proposal Pre-Red Suzanne Vega – Tom’s Diner Diabolic — Dead Zone AOTP – Spaz Out Joyner Lucas feat Busta Rhymes – Jumanji
Red Demigodz – Summer of Sam Billy Joel – We Didn’t Start the Fire Immortal Technique – Black Vikings NIN – Gave Up (Fixed Remix)
Gold Vinnie Paz– Nosebleed Snowgoons – Black Snow Sisters of Mercy – Dominion/Mother Russia Dethklok — HatredCopter
White Glove Eternia & Moss – At Last KLF – What Time Is Love? Laibach – Geburt Einer Nation Outerspace – Angels of Death


Your mileage may vary, but you can see a general theme of how angry I need to be to power through the next color review.

Rule #5: Treat a Heavy Proposal Lift Like a Heavy Weight Lift

Bro, you even lift? In more ways than one, proposal writing is like deadlifting. First, it’s neurologically demanding. Second, unless you’ve got some Silicon Valley techbro ergonomic recumbent sensory deprivation tank with heads up display and DVORAK keyboard, you’re probably hunched over in a position of cervical and thoracic flexion. Sitting like Quasimodo over your laptop, tablet or smartphone while doing an intellectually demanding task is like training with an altitude mask.

The secret is to force thoracic extension, much like a deadlift. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and try to put them in your back pockets. Engage your core. This decompresses your lungs and diaphragm and makes breathing more possible.

When you make room for more air and better blood flow, you’ll find more ideas and better narrative flow will follow.

Rule #6: Pens Down Doesn’t Mean Spin Down

While we are treating proposal writing like exercise, know that the most neurological effort you will expend is in spinning up to a state of excitement and neurological arousal from a calm state. The moment between pens down and the next review is often too short to give your central nervous system a rest. I find the best results come from performing “active recovery” – I do something that keeps my brain lexically minded. In my case, I write fluff articles for FedHealthIT.

My advice is, in that dark space between pens down and the next color review, write something, read something, and keep yourself mentally alert. Don’t shut off unless you have six or more hours to decompress.

Rule #7: Hemingway Had it Backwards: Write Sober, Review Buzzed

Hemingway never said “Write drunk, edit sober.” Yet even if he did, it wouldn’t apply to proposals. Proposals require hyperfocus – a sort of super sobriety. Coffee is your friend here.

Reviewing, on the other hand, is helped with a good libation. Slightly less than two drinks is what you are aiming for. If you finish that second drink, it’s all over. The Mitchell and Webb sketch about the Inebriati/Knights Tippler hits it perfectly.

The result will keep you calm as you read text that is alternately boring, infuriating, and cringeworthy. Proposals never start as easy reads – so make yourself an easy reader.

Rule #8: Boilerplate is Like Compost: If it’s Too Old, Too Hot or Too Foul, Turn it Over

People love boilerplate because it’s reusable. However, untailored boilerplate can tank your proposal. Often times, it takes longer to tailor reuse material to make it relevant to your RFP than it does to create from scratch.

Tailored boilerplate is even worse, since often times people lose track of what tailoring was made to fit certain proposal terms or compliance issues. Cycles of reuse, compounded with staff turnover, means that every company is playing a game of telephone with anchor graphics, management sections, past performance templates, etc.  I once saw an anchor graphic that was clearly “tailored” over and over, until it was incomprehensible. I had the graphic designer recreate it. It took five minutes versus writing an hour’s worth of prose to explain the anchor graphic, which was convoluted and had disjointed flow for outdated reasons.

My life lesson here is, treat boilerplate like compost: Every 2-4 proposals, it’s “old:” turn it over and rake through it, recreating if necessary. If the section receives a lot of comments during color teams, it’s “hot” – mark it for a turn over and review. If reviewers routinely skim over it without paying attention, it’s “foul”: turn it over. Your reviewers will thank you.

Rule #9: Proposals are Dog and Pony Shows: They are Scored, Not Read

Everyone forgets this. Everyone. The more technically savvy you are as a person, the more you’re likely to forget it. How many of us have experienced an overly rational SME who torpedoes the viability of a proposal by injecting reality into the response?

Don’t blame your SMEs. They are used to solving technical problems. Unlike in Acquisition World, technical problems are based upon reality. Your SMEs will bring a realistic, holistic and overly detailed view that will cause you to price or caveat yourself out.

You, or your Solutions Architect, will need to communicate clearly that this is not a place for accuracy in problem modeling or volunteering assumptions that haven’t been asked for. This is a dog and pony show and the best way to communicate this to your SMEs is to show them an actual dog and pony show.

This dog has no idea why he is doing what he is trained to do. From his perspective, he’s not taking the most efficient way to get from point A to point B. And yet he’s kicking ass, doing as he’s trained, solving a problem he doesn’t fully comprehend. Cute videos like this are a great way of subtly getting your SMEs into this mindset: jumping through hoops may not make sense, but it’s what is required.

Rule #10: Be Dana Carvey in Your Defeat and You Will be Stephen Colbert in Your Victory

Dana Carvey was on fire in the 90s. Fresh off his stint on SNL, he decided to try something bold: edgy, prime-time sketch comedy on a family friendly network (ABC). He found a bunch of unknown improv and sketch comedy artists and created a veritable who’s who of comedy today. The nobodies that he hired in 1996 are a who’s who of famous Chaos Muppets today. The staff included Stephen Colbert, Steve Carrell, Louis C.K., Bob Odenkirk, and Robert Smigel.

Yet the show utterly, completely, spectacularly failed.

It failed within the first three minutes of its airing, a story famously documented in the Hulu documentary Too Funny to Fail: The Life & Death of the Dana Carvey Show. I definitely endorse it.

The show didn’t fail for lack of artistic vision or team cohesion. Everyone involved with that show is a star in the comedy world today. They worked hard, they worked well, they took chances, and as it so happens, they fell flat on their faces.

And that’s okay.

Sometimes, you’ll be in a no-win situation. You may realize that there’s nothing that can be done, your sunk costs have trapped you on the wrong path, and that you’re going to slog through on this long path to failure because of those sunk costs.

Picture unrelated.

From that moment on, you know your proposal will become a pro forma exercise and you know you’re doomed. That’s okay.

By being too weird for prime time, Dana Carvey’s team tanked their show. Nielsen ratings showed ratings plummet and advertisers back out within the first three minutes. The cast knew they weren’t going to finish their season. Nevertheless, they persisted in the spirit of weirdness. They continued, and ended, on their own terms.

Out of that show’s ashes, we saw the funniest people in America today get their start. Stephen Colbert parlayed that “fail with gusto” attitude into his characters, his White House Correspondent’s Dinner speech, and eventually into the coveted seat held by Dave Letterman.

It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about having the best team. The best teams bond over desperate circumstances and lost causes. When you know that you are doomed, you have room to experiment with different techniques. Get rid of your executive summary. Change your boilerplate. Call out competitors boldly. Find technical resources you never knew could write, or non-technical resources you never knew could solution. Find out what makes your team unique and subversive.

In Conclusion

I do not guarantee success. Maybe you’ll win and maybe you won’t. I do guarantee sanity. If you follow these rules, you will save yourself a lot of needless stress and stay sane to fight another proposal season.

Sometimes that’s all the win we need.


PS – As a final note, I want to thank Erin DeCaprio of By Light for the title suggestion. Thank you Erin!





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