Selling your project proposal
the art and science of persuasion
Reputation, credibility and career advancement can be significantly affected by the ability to develop, sell and implement proposals that solve problems and develop opportunities. The proposal selling process can be difficult without a complete understanding of persuasion psychology, organizational culture and politics.
This paper discusses the reasons why many project proposals typically fail to be approved and presents a proven method for obtaining approval, funding and resource allocation.
The primary source of this paper's content was: 1) The author's 30 years of project, program and PMO management experience, 2) The author's development of the class: ‘Project Management Persuasion and Influence’ (16 hours) 2006, and 3) the book ‘The Art of Woo; Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas’ 2007 by G. Richard Shell and Mario Moussa.
A proposal selling process based on the art and science of persuasion and politics has a greatly improved chance of being approved, funded and resourced.
In most organizations there are significantly more good project ideas than there are time, money and people to implement them all. There all types of projects ideas: Projects that solve problems or take advantage of opportunities; Projects that improve the organization's efficiency or effectiveness; Projects that build new, significantly improve or promote, business units, products, services, processes, systems or infrastructure. As long as there is competition, and a drive to expand and improve products, quality, customer satisfaction, market share and profits, there will always be a virtually unlimited number of project ideas.
In theory, only those projects that align with the organization's strategic objectives and have acceptable cost/benefit and risk levels should be allocated scarce organizational resources. In reality, project approval and allocation of project resources does not always follow a purely logical selection process. These decisions are made by people who use both their logical and intuitive/emotional minds to make decisions.
The problem arises when a member of the organization has a good idea that supports the organization's goals and still has difficulty getting the attention and approval of senior management. Once approval for the project is obtained, the project may find it difficult to secure the necessary resources. Organizational members will ask “How can I get my project proposal reviewed, approved, prioritized and obtain the committed resources I need to get it done on time, on budget and on scope?”
There are four basic reasons why it may be difficult to sell a project proposal inside an organization:
- The proposal is poorly defined
- The proposal is not aligned with the goals of the organization
- The proposal does not clearly and credibly define the benefits of the project
- The proposal is not effectively presented and sold
The proposal is poorly defined
When drafting a project proposal, it is important that it is well defined. The audience needs to clearly understand the background leading to the proposal, the problem being solved or the opportunity being pursued. The proposal should clearly define the project's: objective(s); high-level scope; benefits (hard and soft), feasibility and risks of not doing the project. Additionally, the proposal may not be the optimal solution. A refined or alternative project scope may produce much better results than the initial proposal. Rushing to present the proposal to the decision-maker(s) before preliminarily researching and vetting the idea with prospective project customers and other subject matter experts can result in a sub-optimal proposal that is not approved.
The proposal is not aligned with the goals of the organization
The sponsor or proposal author should ensure that the audience understands how the project will align with one or more of the strategic objectives/directions of the firm. Typical objectives are: 1) Expand market share into a particular market, 2) Increase customer satisfaction, 3) Increase product or service quality (reduced defects), 4) Reduce overhead costs by X%, 5) Reduce operations/production costs by X%, etc… Projects that do not align with the organization's objectives should not be approved or allocated scarce resources as they do not advance the firm in a focused, strategic direction.
The proposal does not clearly and credibly define the benefits of the project
Hard benefits are typically defined in terms of impact to the organization's top and bottom lines and may include metrics like increase in sales, profits, Net Present Value, IRR; number of months to payback. Because it can be difficult to make realistic estimates, it may be more credible to forecast the hard benefits in terms of worst case, best case and most likely to give the audience a range and probability of expectations. The author or sponsor of the proposal may have difficulty defining hard benefits and quantifying the project's impact. In these cases, it may be more useful to calculate the break-even point for the project and leave it up to audience to decide if it is reasonable to assume that results will exceed this point. The decision-maker will need to rely on their intuition and judgment.
Soft benefits are usually one step removed from hard benefits and are typically defined in terms of improved public relations, customer or employee perception/satisfaction and reduced risk. Improving public relations and customer satisfaction should ultimately lead to hard benefits in terms of increased revenues. The problem lies in developing credible numbers. Employee satisfaction can lead to improved recruitment, retention, productivity and improved efficiency thus lowering cost and improving the bottom line - but this too can be difficult to forecast or measure. Projects that reduced risk can lead to both increased revenues and lower costs. Producing accurate and believable forecasts can be challenging at best.
The proposal is not effectively presented and sold
The proposal may be well defined, have clear and compelling benefits vs. cost, low risk, and is aligned with the organization's strategic goals, but if it is not effectively presented and sold within the organization, it may not be approved or allocated resources. The proposal champion needs to understand the organization's formal and informal project selling process, the political landscape and how develop and execute an effective proposal persuasion plan. This plan includes assessing the environment and the people you need to persuade, refining the idea, building support, developing a compelling pitch, and persuading the stakeholders including customers, decision-makers and resource managers.
Approach the selling of your proposal like a project using persuasion and influence techniques:
- Identify and define the problem and/or opportunity
- Define your project proposal (objectives, scope, benefits, feasibility, risks, etc.)
- Assess your environment
- Develop your proposal persuasion plan
- Execute your persuasion plan to obtain support, approval and resources
- Be agile, assess your progress/situation and adjust your plan as needed
- Improve your process and skills by reviewing your lessons learned
Identify and define the problem and/or opportunity
A proposal stands little chance of approval without the decision-makers' understanding how the project will solve a problem or take advantage of an opportunity with significant benefits. Start by describing the background to the proposal – the events and people leading up to the ideas for the project. These events might include one or more of these situations:
- Customers are not satisfied with a product's or service's quality, speed or cost.
- Competitors are delivering new or better products at a lower price.
- A supplier's technology or product or service could help improve your product, services or processes
- The current situation is risky and could result in a loss or damaged reputation
- A current process is slow, requires a significant amount of manual input and results in many defects or errors
- Employees are frustrated by current work/office conditions, processes or tools.
- Customers are asking for help to solve a problem they have
Resist the temptation to go straight to the root cause. It's important to clearly identify the symptoms – the resulting problem: lost time, money, resources, reputation, or opportunity. After the problems/opportunities have been identified, then describe the root cause(s) and proposed solution.
Define Your Project Proposal
Documenting your project proposal has several advantages. It allows the proposal to be refined and organized. It provides a baseline which can be circulated in draft form to gather feedback and input from others inside and outside the organization. The proposal should be short, concise and clearly state the following:
- Project title – a short descriptive title. May decide to use a code name.
- Identify the project sponsor if possible
- The background – problem or opportunity
- The project's objective – in business terms or terms that the decision-maker(s) will relate to.
- High-level scope – the project's boundaries. What's in and what out.
- Benefits: Hard (cost and revenue) and soft (satisfaction, risk reduction, public relations, etc.)
- An estimated range of benefits will be more credible: worse case, best case, most likely
- Risk of doing the project (Feasibility): What negative impact could the project have? What might go wrong?
- Risk of not doing the project: What might happen if we don't do the project?
- Project resources, cost and schedule: Order of magnitude range low to high. e.g. 200-1500 effort hours, $20k - $200k, 3 – 12 months
- Keep it as short as possible: 1-2 pages.
While developing the project idea, stew on it for a few days – let your subconscious work on it. Talk to people who can help you develop and refine your idea. Be flexible and open to criticism, new ideas, concepts, twists and derivations of the original idea. If you incorporate input from others, you stand to produce a better proposal, more buy-in and support.
One of the most important factors to selling your proposal is credibility. You can significantly increase your credibility by identifying your proposal's risks and weaknesses and then ‘inoculating’ your audience with how you will address those risks. When your proposal's opposing forces raise these issues, you will have already addressed them. The best approach is to conduct preliminary feasibility assessments, time permitting, and include these in your proposal's ‘Risks’ section. Areas of feasibility assessment can include: customer/market demand and acceptance, technology/functionality capability, cultural acceptance, available resources, skill sets, tools and facilities, available funding, ability to operate, legal/regulatory impact, support and maintain the project's deliverable, and public/private relations impact.
Assess Your Environment
Once the proposal has been drafted, a proposal persuasion plan should be developed. All planning should start a definition of the objective and an assessment of the environment. The objective is obtaining proposal approval and assignment of resources. An assessment of the environment means understanding the people, personalities, politics and policies that govern decision-making in your organization.
To prepare for your assessment, it is important to understand a few concepts:
The Six Channels of Persuasion
In the book ‘The Art of Woo’, G. Richard Shell and Mario Moussa state that intelligent persuasion is about working to properly align interests, values and relationships. To persuade effectively, it is important to send your message on the channel your audience is most “tuned to”. In general, people have a primary channel but can be persuaded on other channels to a lesser extent. The six channels (Shell and Moussa, 2007a, pgs. 32-40) can be remembered using the acronym REPAIR:
- Relationships (persuaded by contacts, friends, liking, rapport, trust, reciprocity)
- Emotion and Inspiration (persuaded by sense of purpose, value/beliefs, emotions: hope, desire, fear, anger, appeals to subconscious/intuition)
- Politics (appearance is important, coalitions and alliances)
- Authority (defers to rules, policies, higher authority)
- Interest-Based (cares about their own self-interest)
- Rationality (influenced by logic, reason, evidence and credibility)
Personality Types Affect Persuasion
Tailoring your message to match your audience's personality type will significantly improve your ability to persuade. One of the most commonly recognized personality models is Meyers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) which categorizes personalities into 4 dimensions, each dimension with opposing sides. The Meyers-Briggs was originally based on the Jung Typology Test. According to Jung's typology all people can be classified using three criteria: 1) Thinking – Feeling, 2) Extraversion – Introversion, and 3) Sensing – Intuition. Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers added a fourth criterion: Judging – Perceiving. Because there are 4 criterions with 2 options in each, this results in 16 personality types.
Exhibit 1. Meyers Briggs Four Scales of Personality Type
To successfully persuade people, the critical information you need relates to the Sensor-Intuitive and Thinker-Feeler scales. This narrows the combinations from 16 (Meyers Briggs) to four. Four Personality Combinations for Persuasion and what to focus on. (Mills, 2000, pgs. 72-79) Research has found that the two most important scales or criterion for persuasion is: Thinker – Feeler and Sensor – Intuitive. By reducing the criterion from four to two, you reduce the number of personality types from 16 to 4. This is a more easily manageable number. By determining which of the four categories your Stakeholder falls into, you can modify your persuasion approach in a direction that will be more effective. (Mills, 2000, pgs. 79-81).
To influence the following personality combinations:
Exhibit 2. The Four Key Influencing Strategies (Mills, 2000, pg 80)
The Five Barriers to Persuasion
Shell and Moussa have also defined the barriers to persuading individuals. (Shell and Moussa, 2007b, pg. 85) If these barriers are addressed and overcome, the probability of successful persuasion significantly increases. The five barriers can be remembered by using the acronym BRIL Cream.
- Beliefs and Values – ID organizational, personal, professional, social and core values/beliefs and link to/salute those.
- Relationships – People are more easily persuaded by those they like. Dale Carnegie said ‘people like and respond to people who show an interest in them’. Relationships produce trust and confidence. Reinforce shared/common interests and experiences will improve relationships.
- Interests and Needs – Ask questions to ID their needs and problems. What's in it for me (WIIFM). May have to show how your idea benefits them, fills their needs, and solves their problems. Anticipate their objections and prepare answers. May have to resort to bargaining or politics
- Language and Communications – Find the persuasion channel your audience best responds to but have a fallback. Vocabulary, buzz words, framework, metaphors
- Credibility – your audience's perception of your competence, expertise and trustworthiness. May not be based specifically on you skills or credentials. Can be easily lost.
A complete environmental assessment can be achieved by answering the following questions:
- Who are the stakeholders?
- Who is the project sponsor? Who are the decision-makers?
- Who in your organization benefits?
- Who else may be impacted? Positively/Negatively?
- What is the approval process in your organization?
- Formal, Informal, Political
- Who knows what the informal approval process is?
- Who has influence with the decision-makers?
- What help do you need?: Refining your proposal, Identifying the informal approval process, Supporting/endorsing your proposal, Developing and delivering your proposal presentation/pitch, Providing resources for your project, Directly working on your project
- Who are the people you need to persuade to help you?
- Do you have credibility and a relationship (rapport and trust) with these people?
If not, you can either improve your credibility/relationship with them or obtain help from someone who does.
- For each person you plan to persuade, have you identified, and how will you modify your presentation/pitch based on your audience's:
- Personality type?
- Persuasion Channels?
- The five barriers to persuasion? Beliefs and Values, Interest and Needs, Language Preferences, Communication Style Preference,
- Concerns and fears
- Key motivators
- Political relationships and situation
- Interests/concerns/conflicts related to your proposal
- What do you know about the people you want to persuade and build/improve a relationship with?
- Background (hometown, education, work experience, accomplishments, awards, hobbies, etc.)
- Friends, family, work relationships
- Interests / Shared Interests with you
- Who has influence with them?
- Who do they have influence with?
If you don't know, you can find out by talking to them. People generally enjoy talking about themselves. Active listening skills are imperative to accurately assess individuals and the situation. Listen closely, make mental notes, and ask clarifying and follow-up questions. You may want to make notes after your conversation so that you do not forget.
Without looking like a spy/interrogator, you can ask others about the person.
- What are their hot buttons? (positive and negative)
- Relative to similar proposals, what's worked in the past? What did not work?
- What are their interests in general and with respect to my proposal topic?
- What is their knowledge about my proposal topic?
- Do I anticipate support or resistance to my proposal?
Develop your proposal persuasion plan
Once you have defined your proposal and have begun to assess your situation by identifying the project's key stakeholders, their personality and persuasion channels and barriers to persuasion, the formal, informal and political processes in your organization, you can build your proposal persuasion plan. Start by identifying people who can help you map out the organizational persuasion and approval process. Once you've met with these people you are ready to identify and schedule meetings with people to do the following:
- Develop your presentation and pitch using the PCAN model
- Endorse and support your proposal
- Identify and overcome resistance toward your proposal
- Present your pitch to the decision-makers
- Obtain funding and resources to work on your project
Develop your presentation and pitch using the PCAN model
The PCAN approach was developed by the ancient philosophers of rhetoric as the best way of persuading people to act on a new idea or project. PCAN is an acronym developed by Shell and Moussa which stands for the 4 steps in the pitch: 1) State the Problem; 2) Identify the Cause of the problem/need; 3) Present the Answer (proposal); and 4) Explain the Net benefit (why this proposal the best solution). (Shell and Moussa, 2007c, pg. 164-175)
Try to keep your pitch to less than 15 minutes. 5-10 minutes is best. If you have not yet established your credibility with the audience, you will want to do it before you begin to make your pitch.
- Problem – keep it short.
When developing a project proposal, the first step is to define the problem or opportunity being addressed. In general people are receptive to and will listen to a story. Stories are powerful tools for involving and persuading stakeholders. They are far more interesting and compelling compared to simply stating facts and figures. In order to grab the audience's attention, the presenter should start by telling the story of how the idea for the project came about. Include the background for the proposal and how the problem or opportunity was identified. Clearly relate how the problem affects your audience so they can see the benefit of your proposed solution. Your problem statement can be more compelling if you use evidence. Evidence includes statistics, examples, experience, testimony, and social consensus (everybody knows/agrees that…).
- Cause –the underlying cause of the problem or need
Make sure that you provide a clear and concise statement of cause. Your statement of the problem's cause will be the filter in which your proposal will be evaluated. Psychologists call this “Framing”. You may want to use evidence to clearly make the connection between the problems and the root cause. Your cause statement should direct the audience to your proposed solution. If members of the audience helped cause the problem, then you will want to be diplomatic in how your present the cause.
- Answer – your proposed solution
Outline your proposal including objectives and scope. Show how it addresses the cause, solves or minimizes the problems or fills the need. Discuss the feasibility and risks to gain credibility.
- Net Benefit – why your proposal is the best solution.
Discuss options and show why your proposal is the best. Start with the worst option and end with your solution. The effect of contrasting the worst options first will make your proposal look better. Include the do nothing option. What is the risk of not acting? Fear is a strong motivator – the proper dose is essential. (Mortensen, 2004, pg. 192) Describe the benefits, emphasizing benefits based on the audience's personality and persuasion channels; hard benefits (numerical dollars, effort hours, time) for more rational, thinking, detailed personalities and soft benefits for more emotional, intuitive, big-picture personalities. Most people need both rational and emotional sides of an argument to be persuaded, but it is critical to understand that it is the emotional/intuitive side that makes the final decision in most people.
A few ways for your presentation to connect to the emotional/intuitive side include: (Shell and Moussa, 2007d, pgs. 186-187):
- Make it vivid – use images/pictures/video. Don't overdo it and keep it short.
- Use demonstrations – provide something they can touch/feel, ask audience to take symbolic action
- Put your heart into it – show positive energy and a little emotion when presenting
- Tell a story – how did you get this proposal/solution/answer? “Whoever tells the best story wins”
- Personalize it – talk about real people and their real problems –talk about how they feel.
- Use analogies and metaphors to build conceptual bridges. People better understand new ideas if they can relate them to concepts they already understand. Sources for analogies: history, sports, politics. Can be pro or con analogies (Custer's last stand, Waterloo).
Schedule and prep for your meetings
Once you've identified the people you need to help you develop, support, sell, approve and fund your proposal, you will want to begin scheduling meetings. In these meetings you will want to build or improve your relationship/rapport as well as. In planning for each meeting you will want to define the following:
- The goal of the meeting? Relationship building, obtain input, support and/or approval.
- The best medium/location/tone/timing for your meeting
- Formal, Informal, Large Group or Intimate. o Face-to-Face, Phone, Video Conference, Email, IM
- Drop-by, meeting, presentation, meal, drinks, event (sporting, entertainment, etc.)
- Audience factors which will help define your Plan A approach, delivery and language
- Your Credibility and Relationship
- Audience Personality
- Audience Persuasion Channels
- Audience Barriers to Persuasion
- Presentation/pitch materials (verbal only, slide deck, multi-media, demonstration, expert testimony, etc.)
- Plan B if plan A appears to fail – Be ready to use different tactics/approach.
For meetings/presentations of high importance you will want to schedule preparation meetings to prepare, refine, finalize and practice your pitch with others. Additionally, you will want to schedule post-presentation meetings to review the results and how to best proceed.
Execute your persuasion plan. Assess and adjust as needed.
As you begin to execute your persuasion plan you will want to review the results of each meeting and answer the following questions:
- Did you follow your plan?
- Did you achieve your goal?
- What worked? What didn't work?
- What did you learn in your meeting? Get feedback from others who were in the meeting.
- Do you need to adjust your persuasion plan going forward?
After each meeting you will want to reassess your situation and update your influence plan as needed. You may need to add meetings to build better relationships or support for your idea. You may need to schedule meetings to address risks or concerns about your proposal raised by others. You may need to refine your proposal ideas based on input received from others. Or you may realize that some of the meetings on your persuasion plan are not necessary and you can skip them.
Realize that the plan is not complete when the decision-makers have given their approval for your proposal. You still need to obtain individual commitments and resources to execute your project which will require additional persuasion. You will need to determine who you need to work on your project and persuade them and their bosses to allocate their time. You will need to persuade the group who prioritizes projects and allocates resources for the organization that your project is more valuable and more important than other projects that have been approved. Again, you will need to assess this audience to determine their personality, channels and barriers. And you may want to use the PCAN method with evidence and emotional components to obtain their resource commitments.
Lessons learned from your execution experience
As you execute your persuasion plan, you will learn more about the people you work with and the organization you work in. Be sure to note what works with individuals and within the organization's culture. Use these lessons to improve your next proposal persuasion plan.
Net Benefit – Why this is the best approach
Why is this approach the best way to selling your project proposal? Selling your project proposal generally means selling your idea to approximately 8-20+ people. All are individuals who may work in the same organization/ culture but have different personalities, channels, values and beliefs, fears and concerns, interests and needs. Without a thoughtful persuasion plan, many people may decide to go straight to the person they believe is the ultimate decision-maker and try to make their case without:
- Clearly defining their proposals objectives, scope, benefits and risk.
- Assessing the feasibility of the proposal
- Refining the project idea to best meet the needs of the organization
- Developing a clear and plausible cost/benefit/risk (NPV, IRR, etc.) analysis
- Understanding the informal/political network that can support or resist your proposal
- Gaining support from key individuals inside and outside the organization
- Assessing and adapting their pitch to the personality, persuasion channels and barriers of their audience
- Developing evidence and emotional arguments supporting the proposal
Other proposal selling approaches which do not follow this approach are likely to skip the necessary steps resulting in a sub-optimized idea, lack of support, decision-makers and resource managers who are not persuaded.
Without refining your project idea, assessing the situation and audiences, developing a persuasion plan, gaining support and making your pitch to the right people, your chances of successfully selling and implementing your project proposal are dramatically reduced. Your chances are reduced because you are not optimizing your proposal, your pitch to the audience and your sequence/timing. Without analysis and a plan, it is highly likely you will say the wrong things to the wrong people at the wrong time resulting in a failed proposal and possibly a damaged reputation. With thoughtful assessment and analysis and a well-executed persuasion plan, you are highly likely to successfully sell your project proposal, improve your organizational credibility and advance your organization and career.
Shell, G.R. and Moussa, M. (2007) The Art of Woo, Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas. New York, NY: Penguin Books
Mills, H (2000) Artful Persuasion. New York, NY: American Management Association
Mortensen, K.W. (2004) Maximum Influence. New York, NY: American Management Association
Reputation, credibility and career advancement can be significantly affected by the ability to develop, sell and implement project proposals. The proposal selling process can be difficult without a complete understanding of persuasion psychology, organizational culture and politics. Learn why many project proposals fail to be approved and, more importantly, a proven method for obtaining approval and resources.
Francis (Dub) L. McNamara, PMP has over 30 years of project, program and PMO management experience in several industries including: heavy construction, technology, oil, chemical and finance. He is currently the Head of the Project Management Office at Dimensional Fund Advisors, a $240B money management firm in Austin, Texas. Mr. McNamara received his B.S. in Civil Engineering from Texas A&M University and his MBA-Finance from the University of Texas.
© 2012, Francis L. McNamara III
Originally published as a part of the 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Vancouver, Canada
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