.This post was originally published on December 4, 2018, and updated most recently on March 19, 2021.
A project proposal is a document that does two things: first, it convinces stakeholders or management to give your project the green light. Secondly, it helps you focus your goals, objectives, and resources to make sure your project sets off on the right foot.
In its simplest form, a project proposal should lay down the top-level facts, including a quick elevator pitch, the project’s context, budgets, and what it hopes to accomplish. It’s usually written by the project manager, though sometimes project managers inherit existing proposals that they need to carry out.
The key to creating a good project proposal is really knowing what your project’s benefits are. It’s like the old marketing saying goes: Sell the sizzle, not the steak. Or in other words, tell your
steakholders stakeholders how it benefits them first, then go into the details of the hows and whats later on.
What’s the difference between a project charter, a project proposal, and a statement of work?
These things all sound kind of similar, but they each have their own unique purpose and place in the lifecycle of a project. So let’s quickly differentiate these three terms.
- A project proposal comes first. Its main goal is to convince the stakeholders or boss that your project is worth their time and money.
- A statement of work (SOW for short) is a detailed, formal document that defines exactly what’s included within a project to guarantee work is carried out according to expectations.
- And a project charter is a short summary of all the roles, goals, and boundaries (or scope) of your project. It gives project members, stakeholders, and any other interested parties an overview of a project, free from any distracting details.
So here’s the running order:
- Project proposal
- Statement of work
- Project charter
What should a project proposal include?
Every project proposal is unique, but that doesn’t mean you need to reinvent the wheel every time you make one. Once you’ve worked out which focus areas you want to include, create a template, then save time by reusing it over and over again.
The template itself doesn’t have to be complicated, nor do you have to rigidly stick to it for each project, but here are six key sections you should include as a minimum.
This is your elevator pitch. For those unacquainted with the term, it’s essentially a succinct description of your project or idea. You should be able to summarize it in a minute or two — or roughly the time it takes to travel from one floor to another in an elevator.
Don’t be fooled by its short length; a really great elevator pitch is deceptively tricky to do. You need to build a vivid picture, capture your audience’s attention, and hook them in with a few punchy lines. Don’t be afraid to draft a few versions and try them out on your colleagues to see what sticks.
This is where you give your stakeholders a (very quick) history lesson. Show them you’ve done your research, and discuss their company, including where your project and its goals fit into its overall vision. It’s also a good idea to mention any past projects that have been similar to yours and share your thoughts on how your project fits in relation to these.
Now it’s time to tell your audience about your project’s reason for existing and which bigger business problem it’s solving. You can also talk about market opportunities here: Discuss the current industry landscape, and explain why your project is timely.
Tell your stakeholders exactly how you’ll solve this problem. You can talk about the different stages of your solution, but don’t dilute your message and talk about other issues or solutions that fall outside of your project’s scope. Be as direct, narrow, and specific as possible.
Now you can expand upon your executive summary. Talk more about your vision and goal, your timeframes, deliverables, resources, budget (including return on investment), limits, and opportunities. You may find it helpful to create a SWOT diagram at this stage to help you organize your thoughts and flesh out your proposal.
It’s also important to talk about how you’ll report on the project and measure success. You’ll want to stay on top of progress as the project moves through its different stages, so organize your timelines and make supporting documents accessible with specially-designed project management software. Show stakeholders you will bring clarity and organization to the project from kick-off to completion.
Who gets to give your project the green light? Are there several people you need to involve in the sign-off process? Define who’s responsible for what from the top down, including identifying the key stakeholders themselves.
This where you add all your supporting documents and explain any specialist terms.
Types of project proposals
- Formally solicited: This is a response to an official ask or request for a project proposal. It’s similar to when a company puts out an RFP.
- Informally solicited: This is a response to a vague ask and will not require something as formal as an RFP.
- Unsolicited: This is when you as an individual or company make the initial approach with a project proposal. Think of it like cold calling.
- Continuation: This is when you already have an approved project underway and create a proposal to update or make edits as you continue or start a new iteration.
- Renewal: This is a project proposal you create when a project is over or resources are gone to start again or start a project similar to one that has been completed.
- Supplemental: This is when you figure out mid-project that you need more resources (time, money, team members) than initially anticipated. This proposal will give an update and justifications to your stakeholders as to why you need more.
How to anticipate tricky questions
When you fill these sections with info, think about the kinds of questions your stakeholders are likely to ask. Answering questions on the spot is intimidating — even for the most seasoned public speakers — so minimize the number of questions you’re asked by addressing them upfront in your project proposal.
This has the added benefit of showing your audience you’ve fully researched and considered your project upfront, which will further build their confidence in you. Here are some common questions to get you started:
- What’s the problem you’re trying to solve?
- What are the benefits for your organization?
- How does it fit into your organization’s goals?
- What are the benefits for the end-user?
- What are the deliverables?
- How long will the project take, what are your key milestones, and how will you meet them?
- What’s your budget and what resources do you need?
- How will you generate reports and show progress?
- Are there any risks?
- How will you measure success?
How to win the pitch
Remember, if you don’t get buy-in from your stakeholders, then there is no project. So treat the proposal as a mini-project itself. Take the time to carefully research your market and gather data, so you can speak confidently on the subject and answer any questions not already addressed in your project proposal.
It’s a good idea to nail your elevator pitch before you even begin your proposal, just in case someone asks you about it before the presentation. After all, you don’t want them to dismiss it before they’ve even had a chance to hear you out.
In doing this, you’ll be able to use those pre-meeting watercooler chats to your advantage as a way to build intrigue and excitement, rather than being on the defensive and stumbling through your explanation when put on the spot.
If you haven’t already seen it, we recommend watching Simon Sinek’s awesome TED talk on how to inspire action — a must-watch for anyone with an important pitch coming up.
Remember: Sell the sizzle, not the steak. Make the details easy to understand at a glance so you can focus on wowing stakeholders with the benefits. And once you have buy-in? Invest in flexible project management software, such as Backlog, so you can track every piece of work, create a running history of every project, and make your project as smooth and successful as your winning proposal.