Project Proposal: Executive Memo

Introduction

The purpose of a Project Proposal is to present the plan for undertaking a project, and may include details such as a budget, timeline, staffing, etc.

The Project Proposal should be structured based on the anticipated Audience, which is the group of people who are most likely to read and use a document. This might be an internal project manager, a client CEO, a manager in charge, a technical coordinator, or other people.

Audience and Format

If the anticipated audience is a technical coordinator or team, they may expect the Project Proposal to be extremely detailed, including coding standards, descriptions of how explicit requirements will be addressed, a detailed timeline, etc.

On the other hand, if the anticipated audience is a high-level manager or team, the proposal should probably be more general and designed to target decision-making, as in an Executive Memo.

Executive Memo - for Executives

An Executive Memo is a type of proposal or report structured to provide a high-level decision-maker with the information they need to evaluate (and hopefully approve) a project. There are few assumptions:

  1. The primary focus is on a decision-maker, who will approve the project, the current direction of the project, etc.
  2. Executives are busy and require key information pertinent to the issues on which they need to make a decision; other information is of less importance
  3. A decision-maker benefits from receiving the most important information first, in a clear and unambiguous manner

Based on these assumptions, the Executive Memo emphasizes a format where the most important information is placed at the beginning of the document, stated clearly and with a minimum of other details. What does a decision-maker need to know?

Executive Memo Format

Most project proposals will include sections like the following:

  • Purpose or Description: a general description about the project, why and how it was created, and/or the issues or opportunities it will address.
  • Scope: What the project (and the proposal) covers and does not cover.
  • Recommendations: What actions and decisions does the proposal writer suggest?
  • Budget: estimated costs, potential values added, ROI (return on investment)
  • Timeline: when, how long, next steps
  • Risks: what are potential problems that may affect success?

In a perfect world, all of the above sections should be presented in the first page of the project proposal. All the most important information in one place, all together, available to the decision maker to digest and act upon.

In many cases, such a goal is not achievable - it might take two pages. The point is that the major information should be relatively short and compact. If the decision-maker has to thumb through ten pages of long-winded descriptions, the effectiveness of the proposal is diminished.

Important Sections in More Detail

Purpose/Description: The purpose of this section is simply to remind the reader what project is being discussed and provide any highlights that illustrate important objectives of the project. The section should not be longer than two or three sentences. It should NOT be a history and long description of the project details.

Scope: Many times, this is one of the most important sections. It should briefly describe what work is intended for the project, and rule out work that is not planned for the project. In some organizations, this section is written and/or approved by the legal group.

Recommendations: This is a key section. The proposal writer should not shy away from suggesting what should be done. It is not necessary to explain the reasoning for any recommendations, unless they are brief. Long discussions of alternate options and detailed justifications for recommendations should be placed later in the document.

Budget: This should be a high-level, easy-to-read summary of the overall project costs. If broken out into stages or categories, the detail should be kept to a summary level, not an exhaustive listing. Decisions are often based on cost, the expected value added to the organization, or the return on investment (ROI). These should never be hidden somewhere else in the document. The cost should be those costs associated with the recommendations in the section above. These should be hard, easy-to-document costs. If there are other options and alternative costs related to them, those should be explained elsewhere. Estimating the value added by the project and ROI are more subjective opinions that costs; they may or may not be that useful to the decision maker

Timeline: This can also be a crucial point for decisions. If the project cannot be started or completed within certain periods, it may be useless. The timeline here should also be based on the recommendations above. Other optional timelines (based on more people, equipment, services, cost) should be detailed elsewhere.

Risks: This is sometimes a section that is forgotten or hidden elsewhere, but is critical to expectations for success (or failure). As with other sections, this should be a high-level summary of key risks. Major unknowns (experience, equipment, competency, funding, timeline issues, etc.) should be listed. Complete descriptions and supporting explanations can be detailed later in the document.

The Rest of the Proposal

Formatting a proposal as an Executive Memo does not necessarily mean that the overall proposal is short or short on detail. Subsequent sections of the document should provide as much detail as relevant, as it applies to the scope, recommendations, budget, timeline, and other topics. The objective is to provide the decision-maker with the highlights, and then provide any supporting detail, if required. So if the decision-maker asks "how much of this cost involves the software coding for the new UI?", there should be supporting detail that breaks down what makes up the budget.

In fact, a good proposal will usually include lots of information only loosely tied to the five main sections above. For instance, recommendations should usually be substantiated with research into alternatives, cost-benefit analyses of various alternatives, and how other options might impact effectiveness, performance, quality, cost, timeline and maintainability.

Another section that is often included in proposals to outside clients is a description of what people might be working on the project and their qualifications.

A detailed history of the project, issues that need to be addresses, opportunities that are available, etc., can also be a valuable sections to include, depending on the audience.

Lastly, visual aids such as diagrams and charts may be effective ways to present data, recommendations and conclusions. These can all be included in the later detail parts of the proposal.

Do's and Don'ts

The purpose of the Executive Memo is to provide executives with the information needed to make a decision. Here are suggestions of what to do and not do:

  • Use professional writing. No first person words ("I","We"); no contractions; no abbreviations unless explained; no slang
  • Be clear and concise; keep technical terms to a minimum unless they are commmonly known
  • State recommendations simply using "action" words: Plan, Create, Approve, Implement, Develop....
  • Recommendations should describe concrete steps that should be taken. Do not be wishy-washy.
  • Make budget information, especially costs, very clear and easy to comprehend (Total Cost: $250,000)
  • Do not "sell" the project or proposal. It is not a used car. Do not sell your company or extertise. Just the facts.

Conclusion

Writing a good executive memo is an art. It takes practice and usually multiple rewrites. It takes creativity.

The easiest way to determine if an executive memo is good enough is to ask the question: "Can the reader make a decision on this project just from the first five sections?". If not, perhaps the sections need to be clearer or reworded. More information is not usually the answer, unless something was left out.

Project proposals may require any of several other formats. But few other formats are as important in the presentation to high-level decision makers as the Executive Memo.