Proposals are necessary for business for a host of reasons, but the general purpose of a well-written one fits the same central theme: pulling all available information together concisely and persuasively that helps you drive your point home.
Proposals are typically confused with a similar document- a business quote- but there are many uses for a ‘proposal’ document in the modern business world. Here we will be focusing on the document needed when you are formally pitching an idea (action and execution) by department heads or managers.
These types of proposals are necessary when you don’t have the authority or clearance to start without a manager’s approval. You need to state your reasoning and your plans for execution to gain approval.
SSWM defines a ‘project proposal’ as “a detailed description of a series of activities aimed at solving a certain problem.’ Which brings us to our first tip:
1. Pick a Good Problem That Needs Solving
Describe to management why the problem is important. This problem could be any number of issues that a business faces internally: process improvements, cost reduction, or a new marketing strategy are a few examples. Be sure to describe what the problem is, exactly, what could be the consequence if the problem is not solved, and why the people you’re writing the proposal to should care.
Be sure to describe (in detail) the new fundamentals/principles involved in solving the problem that your proposal is fixing. ‘Universal truths’ are most effective at this juncture, point solutions are simply placing bandaids on a more complex problem. Go into detail about the fundamental structural changes that will need to occur as well as the driving principle behind the solution to your problem.
It’s crucial to go into detail at this stage, some of the questions that stakeholders may have included:
- Is this a problem area with legs?
- Once this is complete, is the work over, or is this fundamental problem solving that leads to future work?
- Are you setting a foundation?
Explain the reasons as to why you’re writing the proposal in the first place. Go into detail, explaining the current situation and the problems that are surfacing because of it.
2. Every Proposal Tells a Story
Before you begin drafting a proposal to solve a problem for your organization, clearly identify the ‘elevator pitch’ of your proposal. Spend some time identifying and defining your reader. Who will be reading this proposal and making final decisions on whether it’s accepted or rejected? What do they care the most about?
Define the language and reasoning that would resonate the best with them. This is important to keep in mind- remember, your ultimate goal is to be persuasive and to solve a problem in your organization by doing so.
The story you tell is not mechanics of what will be done, necessarily, but managers, stakeholders, and department heads alike will respond positively to what you will show, new ideas brought to the table, new insights presented. This is your chance to grab the decision maker’s interest and describe why the problem is important to the future of the organization.
Note: the power of the story might be different in varying programs, so be sure to adapt your approach and tone of voice to fit your audience as you see fit.
Go into depth as to why this story is important to the organization as a whole and how it affects the decision maker’s department. This is your opportunity to take a deep dive into the universal truths, surprises, or unexpected results surrounding the problem and how you see this being transformed by your proposed solutions.
3. Describe What You Will Do and How You Will Do It
These are the most basic questions that every reviewer will ask, so you must get ahead of these questions when you can. Ask these questions of yourself and answer them in your proposal to satiate this basic curiosity from reviewers/stakeholders. Any time you can see an obvious ‘what’, be sure to answer that with a ‘how’.
What: The questions that need to be addressed to reviewers
How: The methodology that will be used to address these questions
4. Address Specific Research Questions
When drafting a proposal to address internal organizational issues, it is important to use clear problem statements: pose questions that you identified from the above steps, show any initial results that you may have, and demonstrate your methodology used to support any assertions from your research.
At this point, questions alone aren’t enough information- anyone can pose a question. This is your opportunity to shine through the proposal by demonstrating how you will address questions and problems associated with the proposal.
This is also an opportunity to define near-term problems that you have an idea of how to attack. Take the time to explain these problems and how you plan on addressing them in the short-term.
As much of an opportunity as this is to identify short-term issues and solutions, it’s also a chance to identify long-term problems- even if you only have a vague idea of how to solve them. This is an important step, it allows the reviewer to think about the problem critically and then provide guidance on some of these loftier, long term solutions as the situation develops.
5. Do the Initial Work Before the Proposal
Lay the groundwork for your hypothesis before you even write the proposal for stakeholders and decision-makers. Doing this is extremely important as initial results demonstrate feasibility. This approach should be illustrative and explanatory to the reviewer in your proposal. Doing so provides supporting evidence and allows the reviewer to gain some amount of intuition behind your process and trust in your methodology.
Illustrating the approach(es) you take to solving problems will demonstrate to the reviewer that you possess the right skill set to tackle the problems you’re presenting to the reviewer.
6. Describe Past Work in Detail
It’s important that you specifically describe any past work that may be related and how the proposed research differs from previous efforts. Remember, the reviewers you are presenting to are typically knowledgeable (or at least aware) of the past work that has been done. They may have even done some of the past work that you will be citing.
Since you’re approaching people that may have done some of the past work you’ve been citing, it’s important to demonstrate the value-added to the organization of the work you’re proposing, instead of just describing the difference. This is potentially tumultuous territory- it’s important not to criticize past work. Reviewers may have been those executing, or their teams may be responsible. Instead, approach it from an evolutionary standpoint. Acknowledge past efforts and the results provided and how the work you’re proposing will elevate past and current efforts.
7. Your Introduction Is Crucial
If the stakeholder you’re writing for isn’t excited by the introduction of your proposal, the rest is just lost into the ether. Here’s a structure to follow to get started:
What is your motivation? Broadly describe the problem area and why it’s important
Narrow it down- what is the specific problem you’re drilling into with this proposal?
This is the most crucial paragraph- state your elevator pitch here “In this proposal, we/I…”
At a high level, describe how this is different from past work or elevates previous work.
Summarize the contributions of past work at a higher level and acknowledge how this contribution can change the organization from a long-term 10,000-foot perspective.
8. Describe Broader Impact in Organization
This is an important criteria that will be utilized in the review of your proposal. It’s especially critical for large or medium-sized proposals within an organization. Poor analysis of broader impacts can sink a larger proposal. The smaller the proposal, the more formulaic you can be with broader impact analysis.
It’s important to understand what the broader impact of what you’re proposing to stakeholders will have on the entire department (or organization) so that you can speak to the higher level, long-term analysis of any problems that may be associated with your proposal once it’s been reviewed. Utilize any internal resources (including people and their ideas). You don’t have to be alone in this process- it can be an idea or an effort that you have collaboratively proven to work.
9. Place Yourself in the Perspective of the Stakeholder/Reviewer
Write to your audience. This is probably the broadest piece of advice that can be given, but perhaps the most effective. You must always remember who you’re writing to and why. In the case of a proposal, less is more. Take the time to be concise and edit down.
Your reviewer shouldn’t have to dig to find the core story, understand the context behind the analysis, or any results of ideas that have been tested.
Be sure to provide textual signposts to know where your higher-level ‘story’ is going and provide context along the way so that they know where they’re at in the story. Clearly define problems, support with universal truths and facts, and let the rest lie.
Remember: write for the person you’re writing for, not yourself. Proceed to write your proposal with a thorough understanding of what the reader does (or doesn’t) know and provide only the information you’ve identified that they would want.
10. Write from the Top Down
The majority of human beings tend to think this way, so it’s best to write for the way that we think! Clearly define your broader ideas, themes, and questions first and then dive into details. The importance lies in providing context and taking the time to clearly define problems with context often separates an approved proposal from a dismissed one.
Even when you’re diving deep into the details, continue writing from the top down to keep your writing clear and concise.
Don’t try to rush this process. The organizational structure wasn’t created in a day and changes won’t happen in a single day.
Give yourself the time to reflect, write, review, and then refine your proposal before you send it off to stakeholders. Rely on colleagues and peer reviews before you submit a final draft to get a solid critique of the work you’ve put in.
Don’t worry about contradictory advice- this is normal. Stick with the foundational aspect of writing for your audience and you should be fine.