Building High Performance Organizations: Adopt a Standard Proposal Writing Format

Proposal Writing: Lighten the Load

Proposal Writing: Lighten the Load

In most organizations, standardized ‘processes’ are followed to accomplish tasks. Examples: Banks operates a standard process to open new customer accounts. In manufacturing, standard processes are followed to design and build double-glazed windows. So far, so boring. Most of us take standardization for granted, because it makes sense. Yet when it comes to ‘managing’, organizations typically deploy much less standardization. Management processes are often ad hoc, continually reinvented as individual managers put their own flavour on this. This lack of standardization is sometimes put forward as a positive: ‘Management is more art than science’. The argument = force fitting individuals to deliver cookie-cutter solutions is a bad thing. In practice, I have found the exact opposite. Allowing individual managers to ‘manage as they see fit’ can be extremely wasteful. Lets look at one example of this, the way in which proposals for capital spending are constructed (stay with me now; there’s a good idea trying to ‘escape’).

Draft Proposals: Organizations are continually faced with making decisions. The Human Resources Director wants to purchase an automated ‘People Management’ system which has more processing power than Apollo 13 and will cost €2 million euro. Does it make sense to invest in this? The Property Manager has gotten sight of a deal on distressed loans from NAMA and wants you to sign-off on an investment portfolio – a €45 million gamble. A wonderful opportunity? The manufacturing group wants to build a 2nd source supply plant in Eastern Europe that will set the corporation back $110 million and some loose change. They seem fired up by the project and are asking for the green light ASAP. What each of these issues has in common is the need for a critical analysis of the suggested spend. Assuming that it’s a good idea to build a second manufacturing plant, where exactly should this be located? Should it service today’s business or build capacity for tomorrow? These are complex issues and you need solid data on which to base your decision.

USA Military: In similar vein, the US military is continually faced with complex financial dilemmas. At the strategic level, they need to decide how to allocate funding across the Navy, the Air Force, futuristic space projects and in ground warfare (Army). Then, within each operating arm, decisions are make to invest in particular hardware or systems e.g. build more battleships or submarines versus spending more on counter-surveillance technology. Even where the decision is made to go with ‘submarines’, the dilemma is not resolved as there are many competing types, weapons models and underwater technologies from which to choose.

Biased Proposals: It doesn’t help that the people putting forward the options often strongly support particular ideas. The information that comes up the line is normally heavily biased in favour of particular options. In order to come to a rational conclusion, senior executives, faced with making the final call, scramble to make sense of incomplete data and poor thinking done at the ‘front-end’.

To overcome these inherent ‘flaws’ in the decision-making system (poor homework completed, sometimes by people with a vested interest in a particular outcome), the US military developed a formal method of proposal writing called Completed Staffwork. While the title may seem a bit obscure, the underlying idea is solid (the military does not have a monopoly on this idea; many multi-nationals operate a version of this). Central Idea = A standard ‘format’ for all proposals which ensures that:

  1. Short Document: The format is relatively short/non bureaucratic. Clever does not have to be longwinded.
  2. Logical Presentation: The ideas are presented logically which helps the reader understand the request and the implications.
  3. Standard Checklist: There is a checklist to ensure nothing important is overlooked.

All proposals for spending (above defined $ levels) have to ‘follow’ a 6-part format. Completed Staffwork proposals use the format outlined below:

  1. Overview: Subject and purpose of the document.

Short problem statement.

Writer’s conclusion concerning the problem/issue.


Concurrences already obtained (has it been ‘socialised’?).

  1. Situation Analysis: Analysis of situation with emphasis on historical aspects, current relevant facts and assumptions.
  1. Recommendation & Rational

Recommendation: Statement of recommended action and how it will be accomplished.

Rationale: List of reasons supporting the recommendation. Include description of expected impact on the organization and any relevant precedents.

Cost/Funding required.

  1. Alternatives Considered

Descriptions of other solutions considered and reasons for rejection.

  1. Implementation Plan

The plan for accomplishing the recommended course of action organized logically in sequence.

              Actions Steps: A clear statement of what will happen next if the reader approves the recommendation.

  1. Supporting Data/Documentation

Exhibits relevant to the subject and all sections of the proposal are attached.

Does it work? The short answer is yes it does, subject to a couple of caveats:

Explain Rationale: You can’t simply ‘send out’ a checklist and expect people to follow this. As with all change initiatives, the underlying rationale needs to be explained. Not all change projects actually produce change!

Mean Business: If you have a standard format, then you need to follow it. Some organizations introduce a standard way of working. Within weeks, managers start to ‘tweak’ and ‘improve’ the format. Within months you no longer have a standard format. Consider how Disneyland works. In each ‘attraction’ in the Disney parks, staff running the individual ‘shows’ follow a prescribed script. Over time, employees get bored with this – repeating the same mantra time after time is not much fun (ask any actor in a long running show). To overcome boredom, Disney has a list of ‘approved ad libs’ for each attraction. That phrase is worth repeating – approved ad libs. Standardization means exactly what it says on the tin.

Train Troops: You can’t expect people to support something that they don’t understand. Some training is required in the use of the format (but this is relatively simple).

Having a standard format for writing and presenting key proposals offers the possibility of superior decision-making. Not alone will it lead to superior decisions, but it will also make your executive life a lot easier. Two divine outcomes in a single idea. Now, what’s not to like about that?

I know, I know. It’s not the most exciting subject in the world. But don’t confuse a lack of excitement with a lack of importance. This is a BIG idea.


PS Lighter Note: Ethics Question

A father is explaining ethics to his son, who is about to go into business. “Suppose a woman comes in and orders a hundred euro worth of material. You wrap it up, and you give it to her. She pays you with a €100 bill. But as she goes out the door you realize she’s given you two €100 bills. Now, here’s where the ethics come in: should you or should you not tell your partner?”

Check our website or call 087 2439019 for an informal discussion about executive or organization development.


About Tandem Consulting

Paul Mooney holds a Ph.D. and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Industrial Sociology from Trinity College, along with a National Diploma in Industrial Relations (NCI). He has a post-Graduate Diploma and a Masters in Coaching from UCD. Paul, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, is widely recognised as an expert on organisation and individual change. He began his working life as a butcher in Dublin before moving into production management. He subsequently held a number of human resource positions in Ireland and Asia - with General Electric and Sterling Drug. Between 2007 and 2010, Paul held the position of President, National College of Ireland. Paul is currently Managing Partner of Tandem Consulting, a team of senior OD and change specialists. He has run consulting assignments in 20+ countries and is the author of 12 books. Areas of expertise include: • Organisational Development/Change & conflict resolution • Leadership Development/Executive Coaching • Human Resource Management/employee engagement
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