Popping the Question: The Project Proposal

In a recent post, I wrote about the practice of adaptive leadership and its importance in an ever-changing world. You know what else helps you stay on top of constant change? Projects. The trouble is that project ideas come up all the time. It’s critical to know how to propose yours in a way that’s sure to get you that green light. In this blog, I’m covering all the critical elements of a project proposal.

The Value of Projects in Today’s Economy

According to this HBR article, we’ve transitioned to a project economy. The article distinguishes this from the previous century’s modus operandi, which centered on operations. Operations focus on running the business as it is. They prioritize efficiency and productivity without changing the system. This includes sales, customer service, and other departments familiar to you. By contrast, projects focus on transformation. They align with strategic initiatives and drive innovation. They also aren’t necessarily siloed to one department only. Projects often demand collaboration across teams.

Projects have become a big player in the modern economy because nothing is staying constant. To meet new and emerging needs, organizations need to continuously transform their work. As with the Agile methodology, a project helps an organization take incremental steps towards rewriting the future. And it is just that: incremental. Every project will have clear start and end dates and target a set of predetermined outcomes. Each one contributes to the flexibility of an organization in adapting to change.

When Organizations Will Accept a Proposal

Now, as I mentioned earlier, ideas come up all the time. Yet every organization has limited resources. How can leadership decide which projects to invest in? This article on when to start a project can provide you and them with guidance. It lists some of the key factors executives will look at before committing resources to a project. 

For instance, consider whether the project you’re proposing has been done before. What’s the problem you’re solving? How is your solution different? Do you have competition in this space? All these should be part of your decision about when to pitch an idea. In addition, consider alignment to the organization’s strategy and strengths. Is this the right time and group of people to take this on?

Assuming you’re sure about the value of this project to your organization, you’ll want to define a few key elements. Be sure you’re clear on these before you present them to leadership. First, what’s the scope of the project? Know what you intended outcomes are… and what they aren’t. Be realistic. Next, consider the investment you’ll need. This includes finances, time, and people to make it happen. Additionally, get a sense of the key stakeholders you’ll need to win over. And finally, be sure you’re clear on your timeline.

timeline of tasksThis Forbes article offers some great tips for creating a project timeline. This will organize your time as you work, much like an effective calendar, and will help you meet all your deadlines. To map out all your tasks, start by considering the whole list of tasks to make your project a success. Estimate how long each will take, and consider which ones depend on others being done first. Once you know these elements, you can map out a general timeline for your proposal.

Key Ingredients of a Project Proposal

Hopefully, once you’ve thought through all those elements, you’ll be confident that pitching your project is a great idea. Now you just need to assemble all your thoughts coherently and persuasively. You can start from the Project Canvas framework presented in this article. There are three main sections. First, identify your foundations. This includes the project’s purpose. That’s not just a business case, by the way. You’ll have to explain how this will support the strategic goals of your organization to sell the idea.  In addition, the required investment and intended outcomes should be explained in this section.

In the next section, you’ll focus on people. This includes sources of funding, such as a potential grant you can apply for, and other stakeholders. (You should have identified these in your earlier brainstorming.) In addition, be specific about the human resources you’ll need. You’ll be delegating a lot of tasks to see any project through, so consider to whom you’ll look. What kind of experts and support will you require to pull this off?

Finally, be clear about your plan. Include your methods for achieving success along with the timeline. Identify the deliverables your organization can expect and what risk management strategies you’ll employ along the way. As you’re making this plan, consider using historical data to inform your work. As I mentioned in this post about cognitive heuristics, we all fall victim to the planning fallacy. We think we can get more done with less time than is actually realistic. We don’t account for the inevitable setbacks. One way to be more realistic in our predictions, especially for notoriously inaccurate project timelines, is to rely on data. Looking at your organization’s track record with past projects will help you present a data-backed plan.

A Proper Proposal

Now you’ve got everything ready for the big day. Don’t just hand executives a piece of paper! You’ll want to present your project proposal with pizzazz. Fortunately, I just wrote a whole blog on presentation skills that should help you out here. From formatting the visual presentation to delivering the argument, you’ll find tons of great tips there.

In addition, this Forbes article has some great ideas specific to presenting a proposal at work. For instance, focus on the metrics your audience will care about. Emphasize low costs, outcomes that align with their strategic goals, and other perks for them. In addition, explain the reasoning behind any request you make for resources. Practice “lean thinking” and ask for the minimum you need. Convince your audience that the investment you’ve asked for will be worthwhile to them. Make them excited to see the promise of your project come true.

Finally, after you’ve left the presentation, remember the importance of gratitude. Thank your audience members for their time and attention. If you can, ask for their feedback. In case they don’t accept your proposal or have hesitations, you’ll want to know why. This way, you can make some changes to future presentations to make them winners. At the end of the day, remember that a “maybe” is better than nothing. Organizations have to allocate resources carefully, so even just getting your idea out there counts for a lot.

Sharpen Your Skills for the Next Project

Has all this information made you feel excited and empowered? Awesome! You’re ready to propose a great idea, like ditching email for Pyrus to move your organization’s work forward. Or maybe you’re realizing how much you still have to learn before your idea can become a polished project proposal. If so, there are great resources for you to keep learning. The Project Management Institute offers tons of courses, including this free introductory course on project management. Learning more about how to succeed with projects will boost your professional development and your resume. Then you’ll finally be ready to pitch your next great idea.