Project proposals are how you can get management to act on your ideas. They’re the bottom-up version of a project request form.
They are how you can influence your company’s future.
Writing a project proposal isn’t rocket science, but it is a vital skill for being able to successfully pitch projects that you know will benefit your team and business as a whole. Casual conversations aren’t enough – you need to give a formal document which addresses concerns before your manager, CEO, and stakeholders have a chance to voice them.
Plus, having a set template for writing a proposal gives you a document which you can reference throughout the entire project. Instead of having to rely on notes and your vague memory of a water cooler conversation, you have set instructions to follow, and a defense against anyone who says that the project isn’t worth it.
It’s a great example of effective business process management – if anyone questions you, you can show them the project proposal and say “this was approved, and so this is what we’re going to do”.
- Knowing what type of project proposal you’re writing
- Planning your proposal
- Writing your proposal
Know what type of project proposal you’re writing
Before you head off and start planning, you need to know what kind of proposal you’re making. This will help you focus on the important elements of your document and know the level of detail you need to go into.
There are six types of proposal:
- Formally solicited
- Informally solicited
These might sound intimidating and dull, but bear with me – they’re all pretty simple once you get past the name.
Although I’ll be providing a sample template for every type of project proposal, the templates for a formally solicited, informally solicited, and unsolicited proposals are identical. The approach for writing these three categories differs with the level of detail and extra research, but you’ll only create inconsistencies and confusion by using more than one type of new project proposal, so the same template can be applied to each.
Basically, if you’re creating a proposal for a new project, use the general template in the section below.
A formally solicited project proposal is made in response to an official request for a proposal. In a way, this is the easiest way to create a proposal for a new project, since the Request For Proposal (RFP) document will usually tell you exactly what the customer or audience wants and sometimes even directions for preparing the proposal.
RFP forms aren’t to be confused with project request forms though – the former is a way to directly react to specific needs and desires, whereas the latter is a way for higher management to request a project of their teams.
Therefore, for formally solicited proposals you should take a more structured approach. You have to respond directly to the contents of whatever rough details have been relayed to you, essentially turning feedback into a quantifiable project which you can then judge the worth of starting.
Remember that the template above is for formally solicited, informally solicited, and unsolicited project proposals alike.
Informally solicited project proposals are the same as formally solicited ones, except the information they are based on isn’t set out in a specific document. This makes them a little harder to deal with (more research is involved in analyzing them) but you at least have a rough starting point.
It’s pretty much just a lack of detail that separates formal from informal – formal proposal requests have set details, goals, deliverables, and potentially even methods, while informal ones could be based on a conversation. If you’ve been asked for a proposal but haven’t been given any specifics, it’s an informally solicited one.
Again, the approach for this isn’t too different from a formally solicited one, but you’ll have to put in some extra legwork in defining details like the objectives and method, and in assessing how viable the whole thing is.
To get a template you can use to create an informally solicited project proposal, check the previous section.
Unsolicited project proposals are the project equivalent of cold calls – nobody asked to receive one, but (if you’ve done your homework) it can still provide a ton of value. These are proposals which are thought of by the person submitting them and can be inspired by anything, from a eureka moment in the employee’s daily work to a casual conversation with a customer.
Arguably these are the hardest proposals to write, as you’ll have to be extra persuasive (nobody asked for the proposal so they’ll need extra nudging). This means gathering more evidence than usual to prove the proposal’s worth and taking extra care when writing to make sure that it’s convincing.
To get a template you can use to create an unsolicited project proposal, check out the previous section on formally solicited proposals.
Continuation project proposals are by far and away the easiest to write, since these are essentially reminders/updates for ongoing (and already approved) projects.
These are almost not even proposals, in the sense that you’re not asking for anything new or pitching your case. Instead, all you have to do is remind the audience of the project they previously approved, report on its progress, account for any changes and ask for permission to continue.
Usually, continuation proposals are reserved for requesting funds when starting a new phase in a project.
Once an ongoing project has finished or outlived its usefulness (and support for it is going to be terminated), a renewal project proposal can be written to make the case for its continued support.
Much like continuation proposals, these are less about convincing the audience of the project’s worth by itself and more about showing why it’s valuable to continue doing it. This usually means weighing up the return benefits with the resources it takes to upkeep the practice.
It’s also good to compare the project you’re trying to get renewed support for with other continuing projects – this puts its worth in context of other ongoing efforts, and can indicate areas better suited to being discontinued.
A supplemental project proposal is required when you need to ask for extra resources for a project (beyond those originally proposed). The main aim when writing these proposals is to be able to justify the extra resources and produce updated estimates of what the project will now take to complete.
If the project’s scope is being increased to have a further reach then this will read as an extension of the original document with a focus on explaining the benefits of expanding the scope.
However, if problems or new information have arisen that mean the original goals require extra resources, you should instead focus on reiterating the benefits that the project will bring, explain why such problems and/or information weren’t seen in advance, and reassure the audience that the operation is still worth the investment.
Planning your proposal
Once you know what kind of proposal you’re writing you need to research and plan out the document to make sure you don’t miss out any vital information. Although what you write will vary a little depending on the type of proposal you’re submitting and the format it’s using, you’ll generally want to:
- Define your audience
- Know what problem the proposal tackles
- Research the current state of the issue
- Clearly define the proposal
- Predict the effect this will have
- Assess the time and resources this will take
- Create an outline of the document
Don’t worry too much about the language you’re using or being terribly well formatted here. Instead, focus your attention on getting the base facts right and covering yourself for any questions that might counter your proposal.
Define your audience
If you’re aiming to get your proposal approved you need to convince the person reading it that it’s worth the time and resource investment. To do that, you need to know who your audience is, what they prioritize, and what they’re likely to be resistant to.
So, the first thing you need to do when planning your project proposal is to define your audience.
Lay out exactly who they are, what their position is (manager, CEO, potential customer, etc), and whatever you know about their background. This will then let you relate every aspect of your proposal back to them to make it as appealing as possible.
You’re also assessing how much detail you need to go into with the various concepts to your proposal. If your audience doesn’t know much about what you’re proposing, you’ll want to take extra care to explain it in language they can understand and therefore see the value in what you’re saying.
For example, if I was pitching a project to our head of marketing (Ben Brandall), I’d take special note of his focus on data (shown by posts like his breakdown of 250 SaaS pricing pages) and use that knowledge to pitch with more evidence to back up my points, as shown above. Since he’s familiar with most things marketing I’d also be able to use more specific terms and concepts – he has the background knowledge, so there’s no point in patronizing him with surface details.
Know what problem the proposal tackles
While it might be obvious what the problem is in your mind, this is where the power of knowing your audience comes in. Here you’re not only laying out what the problem you’re solving is, but you’re also linking it back to your audience in terms of what they understand and value.
Remember, this is the driving force behind getting your approval. Your audience provides the context, but the problem you’re solving gives purpose – a reason to care about (and approve) the entire project in the first place.
Write down what the problem is, how it effects what your audience cares about, and how you know that this is the cause of the issue.
Research the current state of the issue
Before you can suggest a solution to the problem you need to know what its current state is and what research has already been done on how to solve it. This will let you adjust your own solution and back it up with solid evidence to provide a more convincing proposal.
Research how others (and your own team) have attempted to solve the same problem in the past, noting down the core elements of their strategy and what they found in their results. It might seem like a pain at first, but you might find that your proposed solution has already been tested and failed, in which case there’s no point in continuing to write that particular project proposal.
Don’t forget about the context each of these projects was in though. From the size of the available team to the product and/or customers the changes effected, everything needs to be accounted for to make sure that your results are valid. Plus, if the person you’re submitting the proposal to is familiar with the problem they will be looking for ways to poke holes in your proposal, and this is a common point for such an event.
Relate your findings back to how you defined your problem, since then you’ll be able to account for differences between the proposals.
Clearly define the proposal
Now that you know what your problem is, what’s already been done to solve it, and who you’re writing for, you need to work out and clearly define what your project proposal is. Don’t worry too much about relating it back to your audience just yet – for now the focus should be on coming up with a solution to the problem.
The key here is to not go overboard with detail. You only need to say what your proposal broadly is and the steps that will be taken to complete it.
Predict the effect this will have
Anyone with the power to approve your proposal will likely have one question in their mind after hearing it; “why is this the best solution to the problem?”. If they can’t make the link between your proposal and the problem you’ve highlighted you’ll never get past the pitch.
So, here in your plan you need to lay out your predictions for the proposal and how it will benefit your audience. Using what you know of previous experiments, the current state of your main problem, and what your proposal does, lay out the success metrics for your proposal and attempt to predict the results.
Don’t be afraid to highlight the factors which could negatively effect your proposal either. Knowing these and pointing them out will at least let your audience know the risks involved, and can allow you to alter your proposal before submission to account for weak points.
Above all else, this is the stage in your proposal where you’ll be justifying your proposal to the audience, so don’t be afraid to be harsh and alter your proposal to account for any weaknesses you find. You can’t hide them (doing so sets you up for failure in your audience’s eyes), so instead do what you can to minimize the risks and improve the predicted outcomes.
Assess the time and resources this will take
Progress doesn’t come for free, and now it’s time to look into the time and resources your proposal will take to complete. This will let you know whether the proposal is worth the investment before even submitting it – if you can see that the time and resources far outweigh your predicted outcomes, chances are that it’s worth saving your audience’s time and not pitching it at all.
Being conservative when estimating the time and resources your project will take is a surefire way to fail to meet expectations and deadlines, so you also shouldn’t sugar coat these elements. It’s better to give yourself room for a little error and be under estimate than to keep everything tight and have to submit a supplemental proposal.
Note down what teams will be working on the project, the specific expertise (and therefore staff members) the various stages will take, how long their tasks should take them, and any resources beyond the base time commitment.
Don’t forget about each staff member’s other commitments too – if possible you should aim to fit the proposal in with their current schedule rather than take attention away from other tasks. This won’t always be possible, but at least make sure you know what you’re asking for.
Plan an outline
Finally, once you have all the information you need it’s time to plan the outline for your project proposal. Don’t worry about making everything look nice or read perfectly for now – focus on getting the core elements of your proposal on one page, then you can worry about the specific language when you’re actually writing your proposal.
Although the exact layout of your proposal will change based on the format you use and how your team usually submits them, in general make sure you cover:
- An introduction that summarizes the proposal and hooks the audience
- The problem you’re tackling
- The solution you’re proposing
- The method for your solution (step-by-step)
- Why this is the best course of action
- The time and resource commitment (potentially including budget)
- A conclusion which reinforces your proposal
Remember to pose all of the evidence and points you’ve gathered from the perspective of what your audience cares about and in language they understand. When you’re pitching to a team manager, colleague, or the CEO, they need to be able to see why they should care about the proposal and why it’s the best thing they can do to solve the problem.
Once you’ve got this outline done, it’s time to move on and learn how to write a proposal.
Writing your project proposal
We’re finally into the meat of the post, and although we’ve talked before on how to write a proposal, I’ll take the opportunity to break it down into more of a structure to use than a process to follow.
The good news is that if you’ve thoroughly researched and planned out your points then this shouldn’t take too long. The bad news is that unless you play close attention to your language and how you present your facts, all of that work could go to waste.
Since the language and format are as important as the proposal itself, here I’ll give specific advice on how to present each of the following sections to give it the highest chance of success possible:
- The introduction
- The problem
- The solution
- The justification
- The schedule and/or budget
- How the whole thing will be measured/tracked
- The conclusion
Again, the exact format of your proposal will depend on how you’re submitting it and whether there’s an existing framework your team uses for these documents, but each of these parts will usually be kept in separate sections to let the audience easily scan the document.
To make things a little easier, I’ll also break down each section in a good example of an existing proposal. Specifically, I’ll be looking at this proposal calling for a review to determine whether Yucca Mountain is suitable for storing nuclear waste.
Hook your audience in the introduction
Having a hook in your introduction is vital for catching the interest of your audience. If they’re not interested in the proposal from the get-go then it’ll be much harder to convince them of the benefits and therefore get their approval, and that’s if they don’t dismiss the whole document after a cursory glance.
If you came across any striking statistics when looking into the problem you’re tackling, use them in your first line. This will help to catch their interest and lead them into the rest of the proposal, especially if you can relate the figures back to something they know and care about.
Above all else, don’t make your introduction more than a couple of sentences (three or four at best). Shorter introductions are not only easier to read, but by limiting the space you have to work with you force yourself to focus on only the most important details.
Hit the audience with a reason to care about the problem, give a little context on what’s currently being done about it, then quickly describe what your proposal will do to tackle it.
State the problem
Follow up your introduction with a summary of the problem that your proposal tackles and what the current state of it is. Use the research from your plan to spend a couple of sentences explaining what it is, what’s being done about it both internally and externally, and why your audience should care about it in the first place.
There’s not much else to say here – you need to clearly define the problem you’re tackling using the research you conducted when planning the proposal. The only thing you need to remember here is to relate it back to your audience using language and concepts they understand and value.
Pose your solution
Once they understand the problem they’re facing, it’s time to present your proposed solution. You need to give both a rough summary of the purpose of your solution and the steps it takes to achieve that goal.
Again, don’t get lost in detail here, as that’s a surefire way to make your audience lose interest. Instead, give them the proposed method in a way they will understand and clearly highlight how this will tackle the main problem.
Here you not only need to relate the solution back to your audience, but it’s vital that the method is as specific as possible to show them exactly what steps will be taken and reassure them that you’ve done the appropriate research into what this entails.
Justify your suggestion
Although the value of your solution should be clear from how you’ve presented both it and the problem it tackles, it’s worth re-iterating why your method is the best course of action. While this can be done in the previous section of the proposal, dedicating a short segment will let your audience easily scan the document to see the value immediately.
In a couple of sentences (ideally a single paragraph) go over how you predict the proposal will affect the problem it’s tackling, and ideally back up these assertions with evidence from previous and/or similar attempts in the past.
Lay out the schedule and budget
If all’s gone to plan then your audience should be on board – now it’s time to give them all of the information they need to know what the project will cost and how long it will take to complete. Break down the proposed solution into specific steps with a rough time estimate for each, and give a budget which accounts for any extra items, staff, technology, and so on.
This will let your audience visualize the timeline and cost of your project as opposed to the benefits that it brings. As such, they need to have enough detail to be able to judge the worth of the proposal, such as the time investment of various team members and departments alongside any funds for items beyond your current inventory.
It might seem like overkill to lay out the teams involved and how much time they will be spending on the various stages, but remember that your proposal probably isn’t the only thing that they could be doing. You’re not only asking for those teams to spend time completing your tasks, but you’re also justifying why they should not be spending that time on another project.
Demonstrate how progress will be monitored
Without a structured way to monitor your proposal in action and to track its progress, neither you or your audience will know whether it’s working or not, and nobody will be able to address any problems as they surface. This is a massive red flag to anyone with the power to approve your proposal, since it leaves everyone in the dark until the very end of the project.
You need to show (again, using language and concepts that your audience understands) how the project will be monitored as it progresses, and therefore how you will be able to detect problems at the earliest possible opportunity. This will also reassure your audience that they will be receiving regular updates on the project, and that the tasks you’ve laid out will be carried out correctly (since they are being monitored).
In other words, this is your opportunity to limit human error in your proposal’s success by closely tracking its progress. All you have to do is show the chain of command and how everything will be tracked.
Recap in your conclusion
Finally, you need to write a brief conclusion to wrap up your points, remind the audience why they should approve the proposal, and reassure them that you have thoroughly researched the topic to give the greatest chance of success.
You shouldn’t be introducing any new information here – all you have to do is write a few sentences reminding them why the problem is important, and why your proposal is the best solution for the resources it requires.
How do you write your project proposals?
There are as many ways to write proposals as there are projects themselves, so the best way to learn beyond the basics is to share and share alike from personal experience. So, please let us all know how you make your project proposals to both get approval and provide a solid structure to build off in action.
Let us know how you organize your project proposals in the comments below!