The project approval process varies from organization to organization. In some organizations, it is a rational process of strategic and tactical planning. In others, it is a highly charged political game where project managers keep their backs to the walls to avoid the random knife from behind. No matter the process, there are several key steps that you can take to make sure that your proposed project will get the thumbs up. I am going to walk you through these steps and emphasize some of the key components to focus on during the troubling times of an economic downturn: budget and value.

What do you do when you have a great idea? You know how to save your company a ton of money or you’ve thought of a way to really improve a product or process. The problem is that you know that you have a great idea, but no one else does. And, you can’t convert this idea into reality by yourself. You need resources. You need money. You feel that you need the nod from upper management. What do you do?

If you’re working for a large organization, there are probably written procedures for the analysis and approval of capital projects, but they are usually very generic and barren documents designed to handle a broad spectrum of projects. They don’t tell you how to process your unique project, and they say nothing about how to get approval for a non-capital project. You have to know how to move your idea through the bureaucratic machinery of the real world and convert it to reality.

Everything Starts With You
If you’re like most people, you see opportunities for improvement in the workplace that are so glaring that they should be self-evident to even the casual observer. Why, then, don’t the big decision-makers see these problems and do something about them? The reason is that they don’t have the same knowledge and experience that you do. They are far removed from what you do, and they don’t have the time to understand the details of your job unless you run into substantial problems. And since you’re good at your job, upper management rarely needs to micromanage your work. That’s why you get paid what you get paid.

So, you have an idea that has you excited. You’ve probably bounced it off a few of your co-workers and maybe your immediate boss. Everyone seems positive about it, but it still just sits there. Now, you have a decision to make. Are you going to wait until someone else recognizes what a good idea you had? Are you going to leave your idea on the shelf waiting to spontaneously materialize into an approved project? Or, will you take on the responsibility of converting it into reality? Recognize that the later course will result in a considerable amount of effort which may very well be wasted in the end. You will run into an endless lineup of people who will tell you that they had that idea years ago – and it didn’t work then and won’t work now. On the other hand, if you don’t try, you will become one of those people.

Ready for a Six-Round Fight?
OK, you’ve decided that your project is one for which it’s worth fighting and sacrificing. This is how to you’re going to do it.

1) Convince yourself. Get a copy of your company’s capital approval process and spend some time learning how your company justifies capital expenditures. Even if you will never generate the official calculation, it’s an eye-opening experience to understand how it’s determined whether a project really makes money for the company. Run a return on investment (ROI) calculation on your project. This is not only important for you to make the decision to move forward, but in a time of economic uncertainty, it’s a great way to get buy-in from everyone involved. It’s hard to argue against a project that can add money to the bottom line.

2) Get feedback. Pick one or two trusted co-workers to critique your project. The criteria are a willingness to give honest feedback and a broad perspective of the business. Modify your proposal based on their suggestions.

3) Develop a sales plan. You’ve convinced yourself and a few associates that your project is viable. Now your project is ready to present to the public at large. First, you need a sales plan. “A sales plan? But I’m a lube tech!” you say. Well, that’s true, but if you want to get your project approved, you have to remember that despite all of the corporate procedures with their net present values and their discounted cash flows, in the end, it’s a human being that signs on the dotted line. That person is held accountable for the results of the project and that person has to be convinced that all of those numbers represent a real benefit.

Examine the signature levels required for your project. The key people who need to be convinced are usually those just below that level. They are the people who will make the final pitch. They have to be convinced that this project is going to do something for them. Understand where the real power in the organization lies. Upper management rarely has time to thoroughly analyze the projects they approve. Instead, they rely on a few experienced subordinates. These are the people you must contact and convince in advance. These individuals may have been in their positions for a long time and are the recognized technical experts in their fields. Managers may come and go above them, but the old hands remain constant. Don’t let their age lead you to believe that they are unwilling to change, however. The old hands can be persuaded by someone who demonstrates that he or she cares as much about the field as they do.

4) Officially submit the project. Once you have both the technical requirements and the people parts of the equation covered, you can proceed with the official submission of your project. Be prepared for unknown roadblocks to pop up. Don’t be discouraged. Answer all of the questions even though it’s the umpteenth time. Your project may require a radical shift for some people, and change is always difficult.

5) Anticipate rejection. What if your project is rejected? This is something you should prepare for in advance. Think about how you will act and what you will say. This will help you to remain calm if the worst happens. Although you may feel discouraged and maybe even humiliated, you are better off for trying than if you had done nothing. Remember that management is awash in a sea of competing possibilities. You are unaware of most of these. It’s possible that a much larger initiative is afoot which obviates your idea. The experience that you gained while preparing the project request could not have been achieved otherwise. Your ability to assemble a logical thought process has been presented to an audience which may not have known you previously and you will now be perceived as someone with initiative who cares about more than just his or her immediate job.

6) Expect success. After your project is approved, installed and successful, the most important part comes next. When you are recognized for your contribution, whether it be by ticker-tape parade, bonus check or simply a grudging respect from your peers, share the wealth. Thank everybody who had anything to do with the project, even those whom you had to persuade to stand aside to let it pass. Don’t worry that your glory may be diluted, for they know who pushed the project through. And besides, you’ll need their support for the next great idea that you’re just starting on.

Reference
1. Howe, N (2008). How to get your project approved.  http://www.projectsmart.co.uk/how-to-get-your-project-approved.html (8 Dec. 2008).