When you’re a kid, getting something you want is pretty straightforward: you ask politely. If that doesn’t work, you scream and cry. While that approach might work in some offices, it’s usually frowned upon. Instead, as a businessperson, you need to master the project proposal. This is true whether you’re just starting your business or looking to launch your next product or service.
So what exactly is a project proposal? A project proposal is an official document that includes six standard elements:
If you have an idea for a new product or service, a project proposal with a clear objective, action items, success metrics, and the time frame is more likely to gain support from stakeholders than a proposal with lackluster background information and no objective.
Regardless of your project, starting with a project proposal template will ensure you include the elements essential to communicate your project and win support. To ensure your project proposal has what it takes to succeed, ask yourself the following questions as you write.
What is the problem your project proposal aims to solve?
First things first, what problem are you solving? Specifically, state the problem you aim to solve, and provide a clear and concise history of the issue your project proposal will remedy.
Your summary should include events that created the problem, metrics or measurements that quantify the problem’s impact on your business, and a timeline from the problem’s onset to its current status.
Think of this section as the executive summary or a quick breakdown of why those reading your proposal should care. Your stakeholders or potential clients should be able to read this section of your project proposal and understand:
- The nature of the problem
- The impact of the problem on your business
- Why it makes sense to launch a project that fixes the problem
What is the objective of your proposal
Use this section to describe your vision for solving the problem. A project-worthy vision achieves more than simply fixing the problem. In solving the problem, your project should move your business toward success. Basically, this section details the main points of your solution, highlighting the client’s needs you’re addressing while also showing how this will help your business.
Keep an overarching question in mind when drafting the objective: How does solving the problem align with your business’s strategic goals?
If you adequately express your vision, your audience will understand that your stated objective will both fix a problem and move your business towards its strategic goals. Conversely, your audience should also understand the business consequences of not acting to solve the problem. Use the metrics from the problem section to forecast the future impact of ignoring the problem.
What are the solutions/deliverables you’re committing to?
This section includes the core of your project proposal. Your solution should be thorough but concise, while deliverables must be actionable. A stakeholder should read this section and understand the immediate and long-term steps needed to complete the project, plus what kinds of tangible evidence of your project they can expect to receive.
Utilize SMART goals to guide your drafting. All goals should be:
When in doubt, remember: a good proposal features goals that check off all of the above. It’s easy to come up with vague goals that don’t check all those boxes. If your goal doesn’t meet the above criteria, find a way to make it more specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, or time-based.
To better-illustrate this, let’s look at how each of the SMART goal sections can be applied to business proposals.
Specific: What are the details of your project proposal?
A specific deliverable answers the question: What will be done?
Avoid vague descriptions, and leave nothing to interpretation. Anyone who reads the deliverable or solution be able to observe the same set of steps once the project starts.
If your deliverable includes a series of steps, clearly list the steps one by one. Don’t allow the stakeholders to read assumptions into your project proposal because you have not been specific enough. Their assumptions could be inaccurate and portray your proposal in the wrong light.
Your specificity should also directly tie the deliverables to the objective and the problem. The stakeholders should understand how your proposed solution addresses the problem and directly works towards the objective.
For example, assume your project proposes to improve customer retention (objective) by being more responsive to customer complaints (problem). The project is a customer service department reorganization. A non-specific solution is: Improve the customer service department.
A specific solution is: Grow the number of customer service agents by 30%, and hold quarterly agent training with a specific focus on crisis mitigation, product returns, and customer satisfaction.
If your solution does not specifically explain what will be done, it isn’t specific. If you’re struggling to make it more specific, a good starting point is to ask yourself, “Is there a specific example that inspired this entire proposal?” If you can figure out a moment in time that drove you to think, “I need to fix this,” that moment can be turned into the beginnings of a great proposal. Now, start writing.
Measureable: What are the measurable results?
A solution is measurable if the following question can be answered: How will the success of each deliverable be measured? Each deliverable should have at least one metric that gauges success. Use quantifiable metrics as much as possible.
In the example above, the deliverables are quantifiable. The customer service agent headcount is increased by 30%. The training will be held quarterly. The type of training is known and identifiable.
However, not all solutions are easily quantifiable. For example, assume your project goal was to improve employee morale. Morale and happiness are not easily measured. But get creative and try to find a measurement.
You could survey your employee base about their happiness before the project starts and again after project completion. Evaluate the differences. You won’t have exact numbers in this case, but you’ll have comparable data points to measure success. Even if your example is a little more open-ended, like increasing happiness, the right explanation and data can make your point compelling.
Achievable: What are the identifiable achievements?
A deliverable is achievable if you can answer “yes” to the question: Can we complete this deliverable with the identified restraints?
“Can we complete this” is an obvious element of achievability. Restraints are the more troublesome element. Restraints include time and resource limitations. A project proposal’s objective may include the solution to a problem that will revolutionize your business. But if the identified restraints make the deliverable unachievable, the project shouldn’t be approved.
For instance, if your project proposes to reduce overhead costs by 80%, this objective alone would make your business dramatically more profitable. However, if restraints include maintaining the same employee base at the same salary level and increasing investment in certain areas, 80% cost reduction might not be achievable.
Keep restraints in mind when determining whether a project objective is achievable.
Relevant: Is the proposal relevant to your company? To you?
This question can sting, but it essentially boils down to: Is any of this connected to your company’s goals or your position?
Before you get too far along on your proposal, ask yourself how relevant the overall objective is to your company’s current priorities. This can help you determine if your proposal needs to go back to the drawing board. You can also ask if each goal within your proposal is relevant, as it’s possible you’re on the right track overall, but missing the mark with some of the smaller details.
Time-based: What is the time frame in which the project will be completed?
Your solution should be time-based. Each deliverable should be limited in time — at least by a completion date.
If your deliverables are completed in stages, include an estimated completion date for each stage. If certain steps will affect your timetable, describe the potential holdups and demonstrate how each deliverable completion date affects other deliverables.
For example, if you’re implementing a new computer system for your office, your project deliverables will include computer hardware, software, wiring, and other peripherals. The software can’t be configured until the hardware is available. The hardware can’t be installed until the appropriate wiring and power is installed. For this project, your time-based solution should demonstrate how a delay in the wiring deliverable will delay the hardware and software deliverable.
What is the budget you’re proposing?
The budget section of your proposal should answer two questions:
- What resources are needed to complete the project?
- How will the business pay for the project?
You will likely have sales quotations and service quotations for expected deliverables. These are obvious requirements that must be presented in the budget. However, resources include more than direct costs. Resources also include employees and company equipment used to complete the project (computers, machinery, etc.).
If your project requires existing company resources, the resources may no longer be available for other areas of your business. Decision makers must understand this opportunity cost.
Determine the source of funding before the project launches. Can your business afford the project with existing funds or do you need to raise money? If you need to raise additional funds, should you sell current assets or should you find outside investment?
If outside investment is needed, should you take out debt or invite new equity investors? Your stakeholders will likely have opinions on how the project should be funded. If you don’t know which options they prefer, include multiple options on your budget with the pros and cons of each option.
Who are the stakeholders?
Who has the authority to approve, reject, or alter your project proposal? Identifying the authorizer is the most important aspect of this section.
You may have a single authorizer in this section or many, depending on the nature of your project. Clearly identifying who will approve each element of your project is your number one priority.
With authorizers identified, think broader to determine additional stakeholders. A stakeholder is any person in your business who has an interest in your project or will be affected by your project.
For example, if your project is a remodel of your entire office space, the authorizers might be limited to your executive team. However, every employee is affected by the remodel and will need some level of communication regarding the project. Lower level employees may not need to see your entire remodel project proposal. But they will need a timeframe and an understanding of the transition plan.
Project proposal appendix
As the creator of your project, you will accumulate more documents, studies, quotes, and other details than any other stakeholder. While these materials are essential to you drafting your project proposal, the authorizers and stakeholders don’t need to see everything.
However, make the materials available in an appendix in case stakeholders want more details. It’s possible some of the stakeholders simply need a bit more convincing, or want to vet your work to make sure you’re being up front about everything.
For example, a CFO may have a specific interest in sales quotations, service quotations, and other estimates that helped you create the budget for the project. Make such financial information available in the appendix, but don’t overcrowd the body of your project proposal with this level of detail.
The project proposal is a roadmap that highlights the required information for the authorizers and stakeholders to understand the problem, objectives, and solution without having to conduct the level of analysis that you did to create the proposal.
The appendix provides evidence to back up your assumptions on any element and allows stakeholders to verify your work. Essentially, this isn’t part of your proposal, but it’s your place to wrap up any loose ends and show them you have a well researched proposal. After viewing your appendix, the stakeholders should have a clear understanding of how you drew your conclusions, if there are any case studies backing your proposal, and if your proposal is worth considering.
A quality project proposal template is a valuable tool that any business should use to investigate and launch new projects. Using the outline from above, create your own templates to ensure a consistent, and effective approach to business projects.
With the right proposal, your ideas can truly shine and win over those with the power to make those ideas a reality. Remember to be thorough, think like someone who knows nothing about your idea, and take your time during the writing process. Proposals can be lengthy, but with patience and proper research, they can make a world of difference. Now, we propose you go launch your next project.