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How To Write A Project Proposal (With A Concrete Example)

By 10/02/2021 No Comments

It’s a familiar vignette as old as projects and project proposals themselves: project managers tearing their hair out because the sales team sold something that was impossible to pull off, while the sales folks are tearing their hair out because the plan that the team produced is too expensive to win the work.

For ages, many of us have accepted this as the natural order of things. But I’m here to tell you it doesn’t have to be that way.

In this article, we’re going to cross the streams and unite competing forces by equipping the project manager in you with the capabilities to sculpt a project or business proposal that is as compelling as it is feasible to deliver.

After reading this article, you’ll be able to:

  • Roll up your sleeves and jump into any phase of the project proposal lifecycle with confidence
  • Act as the bridge between your sales team and your delivery teams
  • Earn the respect and trust of your business development colleagues while retaining the respect and trust of your peers in project management 😉

Excited? Okay, let’s dive in!

What Is A Project Proposal?

For our purposes, let’s define a project proposal as a document that will be submitted to an internal sponsor, a client, or potential client that builds a case to have your team deliver a program of services or a scope of work.

Tip: if you’re looking for more in-depth information, see our previous articles in this series:

How Do I Pick The Right Proposal Format?

The format of a proposal can vary wildly depending on the nature of the new project and the formality of the proposal process. Some proposals are simply well-crafted emails, whereas others are just a big fill-in-the-blank spreadsheet.

The best advice I can give is this: if a proposal format has been specified (e.g., it’s a requirement in the RFP), use that format. Sure, a pamphlet that unfolds into a wall-sized mind-map will make you memorable, but it could get you disqualified.

Otherwise, I’d recommend doing some research into your audience to try to get a sense of whether they will prefer brevity and conversation, or an in-depth narrative. The former may warrant a short-form, 5-10 slide deck. The latter may require a much larger, chaptered document.

Want to learn more about proposal formats? Check out the section on types of project proposal formats in our article here!

How To Write A Project Proposal In 5 Steps

The moment you are asked to lead or support a proposal, the PM parts of your brain will likely zero in on two goals almost immediately: get the proposal submitted on time, and make sure the proposal reflects something that your peers and your teams can actually deliver.

You’ll instinctively start reaching for your process documents, risk management strategies, and launch checklists, but you’re in foreign territory.

The good news is that when a proposal is done right, they have a life cycle that is similar to a project lifecycle. The proposal process typically goes something like this:

an illustration showing the progression of the steps to create a proposal

The process to create a successful proposal can be broken down into 5 basic steps.

1. Qualify Whether The Opportunity Is A Good Fit

The first step is to identify opportunities that are a good fit for the team and for the business. Opportunities can be identified externally (such as through a request for proposal issued by the buyer) or internally (for example, when an account team or delivery team sees a need for a project and wants to pursue it proactively). But the real skill is in the qualification process.

To qualify an opportunity, you need to review the requirements in depth and evaluate it against the capabilities, culture, and strategy of your organization. Many sales teams will use a qualification matrix or scorecard to quantitatively assess and prioritize opportunities. These scorecards might ask questions around the winnability, feasibility, and desirability of the opportunity and use that to develop a numerical score.

Overall, the idea is to use the qualification process to inform a go / no-go decision about whether to pursue the opportunity or not. This decision should be made by the relevant leads within your organization to ensure that you are only pursuing opportunities that you can win, that you can deliver, and that you actually want in the first place.

2. Plan Your Strategy To Win

If the decision is to pursue the opportunity, the next step is to draw up a plan to deliver the proposal. What is the strategy to win? Who is the team that will create the proposal, and what are their roles and responsibilities? What is the work plan for creating and delivering the proposal?

At this stage, it’s important to brief the team properly, set expectations clearly, and bring them together to create the strategy. If it’s a competitive opportunity, endeavor to know your competitors and be realistic about your positioning in the marketplace. If you have folks in your network that know the buyer, do some reaching out. Research what is important to the buying organization to find some background information: look at annual reports, check for new hires on their leadership team, find out where they’ve been in the news lately.

Develop a handful of win themes together — statements about why your team should be selected based on what your buyer or decision-maker cares about — and build a process to weave these themes throughout your proposal.

Lastly, you’ll want to agree to a high-level approach for the proposed project as well as a work plan for developing the proposal itself. Make sure that the proposal team can allocate the time to create the proposal so that you’re not left high and dry as the due date approaches. Set up a cadence of meetings to check in on progress and collaborate on content. Treat it like planning a project!

3. Create A Strong Approach And Proposal Document

Creating the proposal itself is an iterative process that — in a perfect world — happens in tandem with an iterative review process. This helps find the balance between developing the best approach and performing a continuous reality check with your experts.

During the creation of the proposal, your PM skills will be a welcome addition to any proposal team. As someone who can lead the scoping and estimation process while converting risks and ambiguity into assumptions, you are well-positioned to bring unity to the various, sometimes conflicting voices you’ll meet along the way.

In the meantime, other components of the proposal will need to start coming together: case studies will need to be curated, bios for the proposed team members will need to be sourced and tailored, references will need to be contacted for consent, new team contributors will need to be briefed, sections of content will need to be proofread, edited, and massaged into a singular voice with a singular message.

4. Review Iteratively And Do Your Due Diligence

As you create the proposal, be sure to get the drafts in front of your reviewers along the way: run the project scope and approach by your subject matter experts, your leadership team, your legal team, and especially the individual who will be giving final approval on the proposal.

Like I mentioned above, this is best executed as an iterative process: create, review, repeat. The reason for this is twofold: leaving review to the end will limit the quality of feedback you’ll get, and risk having the proposal not be approved for delivery unless some drastic last-minute changes are made.

The iterative method helps build consensus along the way, primes your proposal for final approval, and gathers valuable input from a variety of perspectives that will make your proposal as strong as it can be.

5. Deliver And Prepare For Next Steps

Delivering the proposal is more than just hitting send: you’ll need solid planning. This is not where you want any ambiguity. Triple-check the submission requirements and confirm the logistics. Proofread and check the numbers.

Is it a print submission? If so, how many copies? Who is printing the mailing envelopes? If it’s a digital submission, test the PDF export well in advance so that you know it will be emailable.

Once the proposal is submitted, make sure you get a confirmation of receipt. And then don’t put your feet up for too long — this is not where the story ends. Being prepared for the next steps is critical. Prepare the team for oral presentations or clarification questions.

Update the brief as scope is negotiated. Keep tabs on the proposed team members so that you know whether or not they will be available when the project lands.

Like any project, this process doesn’t always go perfectly! If you’re looking to overcome or steer clear of common proposal challenges, consider becoming a DPM member and taking our Master Project Proposals mini-course!

Example Of A Project Proposal

As mentioned earlier, the exact structure and contents of your project proposal will vary depending on the opportunity and the requirements of the ask. However, the best advice I can give is to structure your proposal based on what your audience cares about rather than what you care about.

Each section should drive towards a consistent set of win themes. Do your research, and gain an understanding of what is important to the project stakeholders and decision-makers as well as the organization at large.

So rather than attempt to provide a definitive project proposal template, I thought I’d take you through a project proposal outline that I consider to be a somewhat typical short-form proposal for an executive audience. Here are the parameters:

  • The buyer will receive the proposal as a pre-read, but we will get a chance to present it to them.
  • The buyer consists of multiple executives representing different parts of the business.
  • This is not a new client. We have an existing relationship with the buyer, and they have asked for this proposal.
  • The buyer wants to hear what we’ll do for them more than our credentials.

Tip: For a detailed walkthrough of an actual winning proposal including our rationale for approaching things the way we did, consider becoming a member of the DPM community and taking our Master Project Proposals mini-course.

Here’s a sample structure based on the above parameters:

1. Summarize Your Proposal And Credentials In A Succinct Introduction Or Executive Summary

The first page isn’t necessarily the first page that will be read, but an executive summary will help get your points across to someone who only plans to read the first page and the price tag. Use 1-2 sentences to explain each of the following key points: your understanding of the challenge, your approach, why your team is the right fit, how you’ll work with their team, and next steps.

2. Demonstrate Your Understanding Of The Problem Or Challenge

Moving into the body of the proposal, It’s often a good idea to start with a reframing of the problem and the project background. My rationale is that your readers likely want to hear about themselves first, not about you. Beyond demonstrating your understanding, try to reflect an understanding of how the buyer’s business operates as well as the broader implications of the project.

illustration of proposal section showing project team's understanding of the proposed project

Make it clear that you understand the scope and goals of the proposed project—state your assumptions.

3. Describe At A High-Level How Your Approach Will Solve The Problem

When you want to get straight to the point, it’s good to follow your understanding of the challenge with a proposed vision of how you will overcome that challenge. This is typically a high-level description of your approach that answers the “why” more than it answers the “what” or “how”. Typically we will highlight the business value of our approach and what specific outcomes we would drive for the buyer in relation to their ask.

illustration of proposal section with sprint plan

Present a high-level overview of your approach and explain the “why” behind your decision to adopt that approach.

4. Describe Your Approach And Project Plan In Detail

For this shorter format, we want to show our plan only in enough fidelity to get a conversation going (but make sure you have all the detailed answers when you present it!). Often this will include a high-level timeline with key phases, milestones, and deliverables or outcomes. This could include a Gantt chart, or it could just describe broader time frames. We typically frame this in the context of the value we will produce (the “why”), not just what we’ll do (the “what” and the “how).

illustraion of proposal section with detailed plan

Break down your approach into a more detailed outline.

5. Introduce The Team: Who Will Do What, And Why Are They The Best People For The Job?

For some buyers, the team is as important as the approach. Assuming you’re putting forward a strong and qualified team, highlight the specific credentials that make them the A-players for this job and describe what they will be contributing to the project.

illustration of proposal team members

Introduce the team and allow the client to get to know them and their skills.

6. Prove That You Have Done It Before

Relevant case studies can amplify the persuasiveness of your proposal. Irrelevant case studies can just create confusion. If possible, include case studies that meet at least two of the following criteria, and don’t be shy about stating explicitly why the case study is relevant to your readers:

  1. A project with a similar scope/approach
  2. A project done for a similar type of organization at a comparable scale
  3. A project that used the same team that you’re putting forward
  4. A project that you have a strong, senior, and contactable reference for
illustration of a proposal section showing examples of past work

Providing concrete examples of relevant or similar work you have done in the past is crucial.

7. Articulate Your Assumptions And What You Would Need From Your Readers To Succeed

At this stage, you likely won’t want to scare your buyer with hyper-detailed assumptions, but you do want to communicate the basis for your estimate while also setting the stage for what you need from your buyer to be successful. I would recommend including a section on “What we’d need from you” that includes things like access to data and past research, a dedicated point of contact throughout the project, access to systems and documentation, team participation in bi-weekly planning and review sessions, etc.

illustration of a proposal section showing what the project team will need from the client

Don’t forget to note anything you’ll need from the client for kicking off the project and getting started on the work.

8. Frame The Cost In The Context Of The Value

A big mistake I frequently made early in my career was simply putting a cost breakdown on a page without any context. Buyers will invariably have some kind of reaction to the price tag, and the best way to counteract that is to frame the cost using its relationship to the value. Summarize the deal on this page: what your buyer asked for, what value you’ll deliver, and then the cost for that value.

illustration of a commercials section of a proposal with requested changes, program outcomes, and fixed fees

Provide context for the cost that you present to the client, and explain the value that goes into it.

9. If Appropriate, Include Additional Information As An Appendix

If there’s detail that you want to include for select readers that is supplemental, put it in an appendix and label it clearly. This could include thought leadership content, a detailed description of your methodology, an overview of your company and its management structure, financial statements, your approach to sustainability and corporate responsibility, awards, etc. These may be important to some readers, but it’s not core to your argument. Don’t add unnecessarily to the cognitive load of your readers.

What Do You Think?

So what do you think: can you be the change that overturns the old rivalries and normalizes the notion that you can have a winning project proposal that can actually be delivered? Or should project managers stay away from the sales process so they can focus on delivery? Is writing project proposals something that you feel PMs should even know how to do at all? Let me know in the comments!

Software can be a big help in managing the proposal process — here’s a list of the best options on the market.

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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