Business Proposal – Introduction

There have been many books written, and web articles abound regarding the development of business cases. The difference with Asyuler is one of perspective; we’ve been on the other side of the table reviewing these proposals and cases to ensure they actually make sense from a strategic and financial perspective. And therein lies the key; the business case has to meet the needs of the audience reviewing it.

The tricky part is there are often many reviewers, each with a different lens being applied.  As with everything else, some planning/strategy thought up front will help your case.  Understand who your reviewers are, what they need, and the best way to get it to them.

Here’s my top five criteria for a successful business proposal.  If your proposal includes these items, you’ll be on par with the best for getting your foot in the door.  So what makes one proposal stand above the rest?  In no particular order…

  1. Strong strategic alignment.  The idea is consistent and congruent with where the organization is going.  It can be tied to specific goals/objectives/strategies and complements them.  Take the time to figure out if the idea is aligned, and demonstrate how.
  2. Clarity.  By the end of the second paragraph, the reader knows the issue, your proposal, the cost/resource requirements, and the strategic alignment.  Most executive folks just don’t have the time to wade through a 30 page summary attached to a 600 page analysis.  The issue is X, we need to do Y, requiring the resources Z and success looks like AAA.
  3. Sense of urgency.  What makes this proposal important to do now, vs. the other dozens of proposals coming forward?  Communicating a sense of time or resource urgency is key in staying at the top of the pile.  Be clear – we need to do it now because (competition, technology, service, market shift, etc.)
  4. Outcome/performance measures.  How are you going to demonstrate success?  The key here is not to focus on the solely the bottom line, as important as it is, but to have some other appropriate measures that can be cleanly linked to the initiative.
  5. Sponsorship.  You need a management or executive sponsor to champion the idea.  You’ve got to have someone in your corner that is on side with the proposal and ready to run with you. If you don’t have one, GET ONE.

So let’s get to it.  A helpful tip is to ensure that YOU HAVE THE PEN.  Having one single point of ownership and contact for the proposal will be critical to your success later on when you start the review phase.

Bear in mind that not everything needs to be given to everyone.  Generally, you’ll have your core proposal, supported with subsidiary documents (financial model, risk management, communications, policy, legal, HR and other overviews) that can be provided to the users who need them.  There will also be information you keep in your back pocket.  These pieces are the answers to questions less likely to be asked, but that deserve a response if raised.

You’ve figured out who needs what, you have the required information to support the case, and now pen must go to paper.  The key take away from this is that you have to pay attention to STRUCTURE.  There has to be a logic flow to your business proposal.  The document is telling a story; jumping around in time and across subjects will fatigue the reader and they’ll lose interest.  The writing has to spoon feed the reader the information they want and need, and lead them along the path to the same conclusion you’ve reached (namely, that your proposal should be approved!).

Executive Summary – You’ve got 2 paragraphs to engage your reader.  This is the LAST piece you will write, as the process of writing the detailed document will help you prioritize the information.  However, it will appear at the front of the document content.  Think about it – if the reader is pressed for time, they want to get the conceptual understanding as quickly as possible.  Putting a short summary at the front works!

Background – Setting the stage for the request – what the company does today, how we got here (if relevant) and any competitive information.  Be careful not to be critical of the past; there was probably a very good reason for the way things are done at the time, and there may still be today.

Proposal – This is the nuts and bolts of your work, consisting of OpportunityCorporate Alignment, and an Execution plan, including resource requirements.

Be realistic with the Opportunity – don’t oversell it, as if it gets approved, you’ll have to deliver on your promises!  Make sure your opportunity is balanced and highlights the benefits, the risks, the anticipated time-frame, the outcome(s) and any contingency plan.  You’ll need to demonstrate a clear and compelling need, and/or a short window of opportunity  (sometimes referred to as the “burning platform”) – what is the issue/opportunity and why would we address it now?

The Corporate Alignment piece is all about tying this idea into your organization’s strategic plan, showing how it supports the overall direction and builds on it.  Your executive sponsor will be helpful here as well.  If you’re having a tough time seeing the alignment, perhaps re-think the proposal or at least the timing.

The Execution plan will not be fully fleshed out at this point; the idea here is to show that it can be done, and what is required to do so.  Be careful to caveat any resource requirements carefully; if you’re working with the ten thousand foot view, note that further refinement to any estimates will be required.

At this point, you’ve got the master document framed up.  The next step is to package it up, and link in the supporting documentation (financial model, communications, policy, legal, HR, etc).  These are usually attached as appendices and referred to in the body of the document.  It may make sense to extract key tables or statements from the appendices and embed them in your main document, just be sure to refer them to the page in your appendix.

Now comes the fun part – editing.  Peer review.  Review by your boss.  Managing the conflicting advice/edits provided.  Keeping a lid on feature creep (“Oooh, we should mention this, I just read about it on thebusinessweasel blog…”).  Remember when I mentioned it was crucial to ensure that you were the document owner?  Maintaining focus in the document, and a single style of writing helps the reader.

As you draw near the end of the writing process, pat yourself on the back!  It’s a lot of work to manage/write/review a business case, and a well written one should be a point of pride.

Hopefully this will help you in planning out and writing your proposal.  The next article will look at the steps you need to take to succeed with your proposal.