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How to use “red team” reviews to improve your bids

So you’ve put in all the hard work to write the bid, and you’ve been successful enough to be invited for a panel review. But you know that this will be challenging. How do you ensure that you best represent yourself, your colleagues and your work?

Answer – assemble a “red team” to critique your presentation (and indeed your original proposal) so that it is as clear, communicative, compelling and robust as possible.

PG pitchPhilip Guildford, Director of Research and Finance in the Engineering Department, described the “Pyramid Principle”. Iteratively craft your ‘governing thought’ (the one sentence that summarises your proposition) and build below that a pyramid of supporting evidence. Each layer of argument or evidence adds more detail in support of the layer above – all the way to a compelling governing thought. This discipline enables you to edit out extraneous material – if it doesn’t fit in the pyramid of logic then it doesn’t add to the argument and should be left out.Pyramid principle v2

With your argument sound you then move on to the question of how to sell it. Philip explained the Situation, Complication, Question, Answer sequence. Begin with a simple statement of a prevailing situation – your audience will agree and be nodding their heads. Then identify the problem – the complication. That raises a question – and now your audience is waiting for the answer. And, of course, your research will find the answer to the question, so resolving the complication and easing the situation. It’s no accident that this sounds like a film script – “It was a dark and gloomy house. Suddenly the door creaked open and there in the doorway stood…. What could it be?” An engaged audience is much more interested in your answer – so hook them in.

robProfessor Rob Miller of the Whittle Laboratory picked up the thread and described how he had assembled a red team of academics and industrialists to critique his bid and presentation for a CDT in Gas Turbine Aerodynamics. He attributes the bid’s success to trying hard to understand their customer’s perspective – so arguing explicitly why a CDT is needed (to support the UK economy) and how the CDT addresses this (by providing a holistic education that spans three institutions integrating many tools and techniques) and that adds special value (students that understand the sector and its technology). Red team - Feb 2015 - 1

He assembled a red team that included Sam Beale, now a Visiting Professor in Innovation and previously Head of Research in Rolls Royce. Here is a man who has heard many pitches in the area from industry and academia and knows how to ask the difficult question.

Rob highlighted the area of uncertainty that the red team raised – how would the CDT be managed? What would happen if the research didn’t go to plan? From where would they get an outside perspective? This advice enabled the CDT team to create simple diagrams, replacing paragraphs of text, bringing to life an elegant answer to the question – a question that a review panel would be likely to raise.

timDr Tim Minshall, Reader in Innovation and Technology Management, focused on the power of pictures – for both good and ill. A page of text that repeats the content of the bid borders on the insulting – have the reviewers read it and did they understand it? So start with greater impact – a memorable quote or, in Tim’s case a picture of the Hype Cycle. This grabs a review panel’s attention. Work hard to find the single diagram that simply and elegantly explains the core of your proposition. Then use this.

Best of all is to have a framework for your project – a diagram that you can use throughout the document and the presentation. Hang off this framework all your important point. By using the same framework throughout you can keep your audience with you and maintain a unity to your story.Minshall Red Team CUED 4T event 230215

Finally Tim pointed out that not all pictures are interpreted the same way by everybody! One diagram he tested with his red team could be interpreted in two very different ways – the way Tim saw it and designed it, and in a way that obscured and confused. So check how people see your pictures and diagrams! Don’t assume it’s obvious!

Philip, Rob and Tim then responded to questions and comments.audience

Your bid sinks or swims in the first few minutes – so if you confuse or alienate your review panel you will find it hard to recover. So test your presentation!

Your red team will be tougher than the review panel – so you can work on your agility and response to nasty questions. Get the nerves out of the way in a practice session!

Recruiting a red team is remarkably easy – colleagues are generally willing to help and you can also ask your Knowledge Transfer Facilitators as well – here’s a list by department If you are a member of the University you can also access examples of good applications at .

You have so little time to present that you may wish to show a diagram that gives the overall picture, but that hints at the detail behind. If you stimulate a question about the detail then you can demonstrate your competence. Similarly, under the constraints of your bid you must weed out the unnecessary paragraphs – no matter how elegant they are. As Rob Miller said – “you may love that paragraph or argument, but if it doesn’t help then it has to go!”

Tim Minshall raised the importance of “knowing the rules of the game” – so look here for the reviewer forms and guidance notes . There’s a lot more on adjacent pages on the EPSRC website.

If you’d like a copy of the slides contact Charles Boulton (cb683 at And if you would like to hear an industrial reviewer’s perspective then come along to the session on Monday 13th April, when the Visiting Professors of Innovation will be describing their perspective, the questions they ask and why. See our Upcoming Events on the right of this blog for details.


Getting money from industry and the Research Councils

The key to getting money from any sponsor, be they industrial or from the Research Councils, lies in absolute clarity about what you want to do, why it’s valuable, and why you are the best person to do it.

And there’s a simple way into this:

Situation: Your proposal to either a research council or to industry is just one of many competing for attention and funding.

Complication: Faced with lots of bids, reviewers get jaded and lose the will to wade through more turgid stuff

Question: So how do you make your proposal clear, concise and memorable?

Answer: Use the pyramid principle to organise your logic and to engage your audience.

At a  seminar given to about 40 people from the Cambridge postdoc community from engineering, materials science, chemistry and the Computer Lab, held at the University’s Postdoc Centre (, Philip Guildford presented the Pyramid Principle (developed many years ago by Barbara Minto) and explained how it can be used to structure good proposals. A vital first step is to create a draft “governing thought” that captures the proposition. Then design a pyramid of logic, each step clearly made up of others and on a sound foundation that clarifies your premise.

Pyramiding PG's presentation 150202

Then, with your pyramid in place explore how to set the scene for your reader. Begin with a ‘situation’ statement – a statement of fact that gets the reader nodding in agreement that you know what’s going on. Then add the ‘complication’ – this is poses the dilemma which is usually the core purpose of your work. Then articulate clearly the ‘question’ – this is the question you’d like to answer through your proposal. And finally craft a concise answer – which is the answer to the question or which describes how your work will provide the answer.

Now, the magic step. Pull together the situation, the complication, the question and the answer into a “governing thought”. This is at the top of your pyramid. And now you can iterate on the SCQA and on your pyramid of logic to create a robust proposal with incontrovertible logic that shows it just has to be supported – doesn’t it?

Avoid the error of first writing your proposal and then going back to impose a logic later – you’ll fail or you’ll have to rewrite. (And at the end you’re usually tired and under time pressure!)

Take the opportunity to check your pyramid of logic with colleagues – they can help you to make it more robust and more easily understood by people who are not so close to the topic.

PG 150130Obviously you’ll need to tailor the situation to the interests of your audience – industry will be interested in the commercial aspects while the Research Councils will care about the scientific state of play into which your work fits.

Another use for the pyramid principle is to break a problem down so you can see the components – the answers that need to fit together to deliver the completed solution. So you can use the diagram to plan the projects that will provide the various answers that assemble to answer the bigger question. So now you, your colleagues and your sponsor can share a view of what is being done and why – even across a complex programme of projects.

If you’d like a copy of Philip’s slides please contact Charles Boulton (cb683 (at)

Cashing in on your research – what could possibly go wrong?

On Friday 12th December, amidst many questions and much debate, Julian Peck of Cambridge Enterprise described an example of the rollercoaster ride that can unfold as people take their technology to market – licensing, sublicenses, patent fields, complementary technologies, phoenix companies, personality clashes and eventual reconciliation. Vault

Along the way and afterwards he discussed the pros and cons of trade secrets, the trade-offs to be made in choosing countries in which to patent, whether databases are protectable and how to exploit previously published work. He also talked about different business models – for example do you use a ‘freemium’ model or, perhaps, trust in first-mover advantage and use your leadership and agility as a way to sell a series of consultancy assignments? He also discussed the default arrangements in ownership of intellectual property for people wanting to work through Cambridge Enterprise or wanting to work directly – and faced probing questions about the trade-offs.

The case study brought to life the realities of developing and exploiting research and the rich questions from an engaged audience made the whole session fascinating.

Contact Julian at Cambridge Enterprise ( to ask for advice, perhaps an assessment of your options or for signposting to the many other sources of help in Cambridge Enterprise and across Cambridge.

Now that’s compelling!

Was this the first step on the creation of a successful business? You saw it here first!

Compelling pitchAlberto Frangini received a bottle of bubbly for the quality of his elevator pitch to the Visiting Professors of Innovation (Rick Mitchell, Sam Beale and Pieter Knook) by describing clearly and concisely how his approach to screening for drugs for Alzheimer’s might make millions for a pharmaceutical company. He quickly defined the size of the prize and the problem, how his approach could help and what the next step is. In less than two minutes he’d got the audience’s attention, hooking them in with some factoids – there are only five drugs available for Alzheimer’s and a success rate of <0.5% even from clinical trials. So if he could help – that’s got to be worth something.

Listening to pitches about better orthopaedic surgery, helping companies develop services, bringing the Dalai Lama to Cambridge, improving the sustainability of companies’ manufacturing and a radical idea for calendars in emerging markets, both pitchers and audience learned a lot.

Why should your listener be interested? You’ll have to explain the benefit – and your audience will not be as close to the subject as you, so don’t assume it’s obvious!

What, exactly, do you want? Be clear about what you need – it’s so easy to describe the idea, but forget to describe what you want.

Why should your audience believe – and why you? So what are you doing? Why is it clever? And why are you the best person to do it and your approach the best way?

After which, of course, the answer is “yes”. Or in this case “the bottle is yours”.

Oh, and by the way, one of the pitches from last year’s practice session went on to win CUTEC’s Start-up Competition ( and then funding from Herman Hauser. VocalIQ are now up and running ( – maybe Alberto and his team will be next.

Somehow they don’t seem interested …

Ever wished you could quickly tell somebody what you do? Without them glazing over? Without them wandering off to talk to somebody more interesting?

And ever wished you could cogently describe the value of what you do so competently that people would want to support you? Give you money?

This is the art of the elevator pitch. And for those who’d like to try theirs out there’s a skilled and experienced panel to help to refine the story and the proposition.

If you’re interested, look at the “Upcoming events” sidebar on the right – then come and join us.

Seminar on Creating Impactful Decision Support Tools from Research

How to develop tools from your research – tools that help engagement with industry

Thursday 27 Nov 2014.

12.00 – 13.00, followed by lunch and an interactive session until 13.30.

Seminar 2, Institute for Manufacturing

Dr Imoh Ilevbare will share his experience of work being done at IfM ECS in developing tools for industry, and also draw on his experience of tool development as a PhD student. Primarily, the talk will introduce the architecture and methodology IfM ECS follows in developing new tools, focusing particularly on key issues considered to ensure that practical, useful and usable tools are developed from research. The methodology, which builds on a well-established process for tool development created within the IfM, has been enhanced to ensure it is more targeted, effective and transparent.

Please reply to Leila Alinaghian, Research Capability Development Programme Leader ( to express your interest in attending.

Selling for Researchers – a force for good or an excursion to the dark side?

“So, are will you be a force for good – or will you be lured over to the dark side?”

And with these words, Philip Guildford introduced the “Selling for Researchers” course, run for the third year and delivered by Marcel Dissel, again to excellent reviews and feedback.

The challenge that Philip threw out, and the insights that Marcel shared drew the distinction between “consultative selling” and “manipulative selling”. In consultative selling you work with your industrial partner to develop a project (and a budget) that gives you both a win and can be the basis for a long-term relationship. Manipulative selling, by contrast, is the hard sell that leads to a slightly uncomfortable feeling on both sides and usually ends in disaster. It’s manipulative selling that gives sales such a bad name.

In fact, there was quite a lot of curiosity about the dark side – and this was explored during the course as well…Text box 1

What did participants want from the course? On the day it was to:

  • Develop confidence through having some frameworks and some practice
  • Understand the difference between selling to industry and selling to the research councils
  • Learn some selling techniques
  • Understand what industry cares about
  • Identify which person to talk to about what
  • Understand who are our competitors and how to address that
  • Understand how to close the deal

Marcel then presented a very simple model of selling

Fig 1and facilitated discussion around topics including

  • The difference between ‘farming’ (long term relationships nurtured over time) and ‘hunting’ (looking for new business’) which is the focus of this course
  • The realities of hearing ‘no’ a lot
  • How to avoid being a commodity
  • Thinking about your competitors (be they other universities, consultants or the industrialist’s internal R&D resources)
  • A simple five step process model
  • The role of open questions in finding out what really matters (as distinct from forcing your solution on the listener) (“What’s your role in the business?”, “Tell me about ….”, “What’re the challenges in your industry?” “Why might customers choose you over your competitors?”)
  • The importance of the 5 Ps (“proper preparation prevents poor performance” – i.e. “do your research before the meeting”) – as a way to keep leadership of the conversation and to cover the topics you want to discuss
  • And vitally importantly – the process by which a sales is made – see the diagram on the right
  • The importance of matching seniority between the selling team and the buying team – ensure their CEO can meet your Prof or Head of DepartmentText box 2
  • The value of demonstrators or prototypes
  • How to think about and develop your Unique Selling Proposition, and, of course,
  • The difference between consultative selling and manipulative selling.

Then the course turned to the elevator pitches and people’s chance to practice and rehearse their proposition and their pitch.   As usual the range of topics was truly amazing. We heard about

  • Screening techniques for diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and dementia
  • How to make engineering simulators faster and easier to use, saving design time and minimising errors
  • Using monitoring systems in buildings to reduce through-life costs
  • How to reduce the costs of insurance fraud
  • A new technique for earlier detection of breast cancer
  • A new device to find missing objects (everything from car keys to patients with dementia)
  • How to dream up new products and services which are more ecologically sustainable
  • A service to find tenants for industrial zones in emerging economies
  • A faster cheaper way of making nanofibres – with an amazing array of uses
  • How to eliminate the need for passwords

Intense negotiationThe afternoon session enabled teams to explore how to sell and buy university research services by choosing some of the ideas from the elevator pitches and working them up.

And this little picture provides a simple map for how to plan and run a good meeting.

Fig 2

The feedback, lessons and discussions continued unabated

Feedback on the day

And then, finally, Marcel provided his famous “summary slide”.

Summary chart1

(And by the way, if you’d like to be put in touch with any of the pitchers to follow up their research then just contact cb683 (at)


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