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What Is A Project Proposal, And What Does It Look Like?

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In this post you’ll learn what a project proposal is. On top of that, I’ll show you the main parts of a good project proposal and the purpose that each part serves.

This post is part of a series for project managers focusing on project proposals. Check out the rest of the guide here:

What Is A Project Proposal?

When it comes to making a formal bid for new work, a project proposal generally refers to a written document that will be submitted to an internal sponsor, a client, or prospective client that builds a case to have your team deliver a scope of work.

Sure, there are other types of proposals — verbal proposals, informal emails, fill-in-the-blank forms, etc. — but when we’re talking about formally securing new clients or new projects, what we’re talking about is really storytelling and the art of persuasion.

What Should A Project Proposal Include?

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all, silver bullet format or definitive list of ingredients for a project proposal, but here’s a basic structure to make sure you cover off all of the important information needed for a successful proposal:

Example Project Proposal Outline

  • Executive Summary

Provide a brief (max 1-2 page) introduction that summarizes the challenge, the solution, and the approach you’d take for project stakeholders.

  • Our Understanding

Reframe the challenge and project background in a way that shows you understand the realities, constraints, and inherent value of solving that challenge.

  • Our Solution & Proposed Approach

Describe your proposed solution, your approach and methodology, the project scope, the deliverables you would produce, and the value the project would bring.

  • Project Plan & Key Milestones

Show that you have a realistic project plan and timeframe to get the job done in the context of your buyer’s business. Be clear about when you will engage with stakeholders and the key milestones along the way.

  • Case Studies / Awards

Prove that you have the skills and experience to deliver successful projects of this nature. Where possible, show that you’ve done it before at a comparable scale.

  • Proposed Team Members

Prove that you have qualified people to do the work, and articulate what each member of the project team will contribute to the success of the project.

  • Project Costs

Provide the cost to deliver the desired results. Your pricing should include service fees, ancillary fees, contingency, and tax (if applicable). Where possible, describe this in the context of value: what will your buyer get in terms of outcomes and impact?

  • Assumptions & What You Need To Be Successful

Articulate the assumptions you’ve made as the basis of your estimate, and be clear about what you would need from your buyer throughout the project in order to meet the objectives that have been agreed to.

  • Supplemental Information

Provide any additional information as an appendix. This could include a corporate / team overview, technical information, detailed descriptions of solution functionality, proposed approval workflows, project management software to be used, or thought capital relevant to the proposed project. There will probably also be other required elements that are specific to the proposal you are creating, especially if you are responding to a competitive request for proposals (RFP). These might include legal disclaimers, proof of insurance, references or testimonials, signed schedules and forms, or redlined service agreements. In addition to telling a good story, it’s important to know the requirements, and submit a proposal that is compliant with them! In terms of sequencing, the order will depend entirely on your audience and what they care about. Read that again: this is about what your audience cares about, not necessarily how you want to structure it. Think of it as telling a story that evokes both emotion and conviction, even if it isn’t read cover-to-cover.

Tip: If you’d like to step through an example of a winning project proposal and the rationale for the way it is structured, consider becoming a DPM member and taking our Master Project Proposals workshop!

What Does A Project Proposal Look Like?

There are many different types of proposal formats, but rather than try to cover them all, I thought I’d talk about two sides of a spectrum – short-form slide decks and long-form documents.

Graphic of Project Proposal Short Form

Fig A. an example slide from a short-form, deck-style proposal.

The Short-Form Slide Deck

When you have a chance to get in front of a senior audience, but only have a short amount of time to convince them your approach is the right one, a succinct and punchy deck that provokes dialogue is likely your best bet. This is typically a 5-15 slide deck that zeroes in on exactly what your audience cares about. That means you need to truly take the time to step into your buyer’s mindset:

  • Do they feel they need a team that deeply understands their business challenges and politics to be effective?
  • Are they looking for a bulletproof approach tailored to their needs instead of a canned methodology?
  • Are they looking for proof that you can deliver tangible results while avoiding the risks that keep them up at night?

What makes this format effective is the fact that it focuses your proposed approach on the exact levers you need to pull to win. This format deliberately stays out of the weeds, usually prioritizing business impact over minutiae about your methodology. It also strives to answer the key questions, while leaving some degree of mystery to drive a deeper conversation. When you rehearse your presentation, it should take less than half the time you have allocated for the meeting. And while it is also at home as a walk-around document to be shared, what it is really meant to be is the talking points for executives when they are rallying buy-in from their teams.

PROS

  • Quicker to build
  • Great for an executive audience
  • Effective at driving a conversation

CONS

  • Requires a lot of distillation
  • Not much room for detail
Project Proposal Long Form

Fig B. an example page from a long-form, highly detailed proposal.

The Long-Form Document

When you are asked to paint a detailed picture of your approach to a panel of cross-functional decision-makers who care about very different things, a longer document is probably in order.

This can be almost any length (I’ve done 30-pagers and 220-pagers and everything in between), but the key is that the document is well organized into chapters that will mean something to your readers. This is your chance to convince their enterprise architect that your proven approach to legacy systems integration will scale with their needs for years to come.

This is your chance to re-iterate the value of your human-centered design philosophies to their director of customer experience. This is your chance to showcase how you plan to collaborate with their business intelligence team to build an analytics engine that leverages next-generation machine learning and AI.

This format uses its content to speak directly to specific decision-makers while reinforcing key win themes throughout. It tells a good story when read in full, but also anticipates that it might be read out of sequence or that some of its readers may only read the sections that they care about. It attempts to answer a wide range of questions by bringing the project to life for its readers. In some cases, it contains enough detail that parts of it can be used to inform the SOW.

PROS

  • Accommodates more detail
  • Parts can be used for the SOW
  • Great for a panel of reviewers with varied values and priorities

CONS

  • Runs the risk of replacing the conversation
  • Requires an intensive proposal writing process
Short and Long Forms

We went over the pros and cons of short and long-form proposals in our Master Project Proposals workshop. They’re summarized in the graphic above.

Who Creates Project Proposals?

Many people I know think that proposals are only for client services-oriented businesses like agencies and consultancies, but even internal projects sometimes need project proposals to get buy-in from decision-makers. They may not always demand the same level of rigor, but they are nonetheless about telling a compelling story to win work that is valuable for the organization and gratifying to deliver.

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Galen Low

About Galen Low

I am a Client Services Professional and Agile Delivery Specialist with progressive experience driving human-centered digital transformation in government, healthcare, transit, and retail verticals. I manage large, cross-functional teams and executive-level relationships within boutique agencies and large consultancies to drive tangible business outcomes and strategic growth. A few of my specialties: digital strategy, agile web application development, project management, human-centered design, design thinking, innovation & growth, digital government, career coaching, professional development.

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