What if there was a way to craft your internal proposals so that they would resonate well with the focus of the business?

I’m sure you are thinking: That’s obvious!

Many of us have submitted a number of proposals for projects or programs that did not receive the desired budget approval. Sometimes the answer is a hard “no”; other times the answer is “not right now.” In the worst cases, we hear nothing.

In this article, I will present some ways to improve the likelihood that an internal project proposal is approved—or, at a minimum, receives direct feedback that supports iteration and a future attempt.

Avoid the trap

On the sales side of the equation, one of the most common questions that folks will ask is, “How much will it cost?”

In the words of Admiral Ackbar from Return of the Jedi: “It’s a Trap.”

We fall into this trap because we think the request for pricing or a proposal is an indication of interest. We are optimistic that the customer, whether internal or external, is engaged and understands the solution, the impact, and the problem that our proposal solves.

To avoid this trap, we can create better proposals by adding context. This requires that we take a step back and consider a couple of foundational items. None of these items are surprising on their own. They are things we do every day. They are core to many of our jobs as folks who help our organizations solve problems.

Conduct internal research

We often conduct research on our own—we look for solutions, we have conversations with subject matter experts.

How often do we turn this lens on our own business, toward our leadership, toward our management?

Let’s start with some basic questions:

  • What problem are we solving?
  • Why does this problem persist? (What is the justification for trying to solve this problem? Is it solvable? Does anyone care?)
  • How have we attempted to solve the problem in the past? (Learn from earlier failures.)
  • What happens if we solve the problem? (What are the opportunities for benefit, growth, or impact?)
  • What happens if we do not? (Identify potential costs and risks)
  • How will we know? (Identify what success looks like—and how to measure it.)

These questions all orient around the problem we are trying to solve. They are relatively simple questions, but sometimes they can be really hard to answer.

The most common mistake is to accept the first answer as the true answer. This is where we need to channel our inner journalist—our inner Lois Lane—and work to get to the root of the problem. Root cause analysis can help us here. A common technique is the 5 Whys.

With answers to these questions, we should have a clear understanding of the problem we are solving, who cares about the problem, who is impacted by the problem, and why they continue to struggle with the problem.

Tell the story

So, we’ve captured your data and conducted your research. Now what?

Let’s get back to the journalist idea. Journalists gather information to tell or share a story.

What is the customer’s story? This question applies to both internal and external customers. Who are the characters? Who has the problem? What villains (problems) do they face? Why have they not been able to overcome the problems?

By now, it should be clear that there is a direct correlation to the questions we asked in the research section and the questions asked above. Our objective here is to work to connect the dots between the folks who care, the folks who are impacted, the problems they are attempting to overcome, and the benefit of overcoming these issues.

Every great story—the ones that stand the test of time—has a hero and a villain. They interact with others—characters—and operate in an environment, the scene. They go through a journey; they stumble; they learn; they adapt; they execute. The story ends in success—the hero overcomes the challenge—or in failure.

A key role that we have not discussed yet, which Donald Miller covers in the work he has done with Building a Story Brand, is the guide. This is the person who delivers the plan—that calls the hero to action, provides a map, and makes it possible to succeed and avoid failure.

The plan: How we will execute

What’s the plan in this story? The plan is to get our proposals accepted.

The information we have gathered—our understanding of the story—provides the dots or major nodes of our proposal. At this point, we should have a clear understanding of the problem, who is impacted by the problem, and what happens if they are able to overcome the problem.

The next steps is to talk about execution. This is where we get to put our project management hat on and design the plan that helps us avoid risk, improve likelihood of success, and evaluate progress. This entails answering more questions:

  • What is our 30-, 60-, or 90-day plan?
  • How long will it take to implement?
  • What resources are necessary?
  • What are our dependencies?
  • How will we know if we are on track?

This set questions—or, rather, the answers—should be clear in our proposal.

Bringing it all together

A proposal that works and gets the attention it deserves has a clear problem statement. There is clarity around the problem that will be solved and why it is important to solve the problem.

The impact should be measured in business terms. Reduced risk or cost, increase in revenues generated, or increased productivity. The benefit should outweigh the cost. Let’s not try to solve a $10,000 problem with a $100,000 solution. Let’s solve $100,000 problems with $10,000 solutions.

A proposal that works and gets the attention it deserves has a clear plan. How will we execute? What’s the timeline? Who is involved? How will we know we have achieved the objective?

A proposal that works and gets the attention it deserves has a story arc. The proposal engages the decision maker, speaks to the problems that they care about, and addresses the villains they are struggling with. It includes a vision of the future where these problems no longer persist.

If we know our customers, know our solution, and know our approach, creating a winning internal project proposal becomes more predictable.

Explore the Business of Learning

Learn more about getting proposals approved, choosing learning technology, making your organization more agile, and improving your efficiency at The Business of Learning, an online conference from The eLearning Guild, November 6–7, 2019. Mike Simmons is presenting “Getting Your Investment Proposal Approved” on November 7.