Six Key Considerations for Innovative ProposalsChristina M. Sax | Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs, Maryland University of Integrative Health
Has this happened to you? You’ve got a great idea, developed a well-researched proposal, and presented it to a senior decision maker. You were sure that your proposal would be approved and funded, but then were surprised and confused to learn that it wasn’t.
Or, as a senior decision maker, you’ve had a proposal presented to you and thought, “How could they not address key questions up front?” Then, upon asking for more information, the proposer tells you you’re a micromanager or a barrier to innovation.
Addressing six key considerations in innovation proposals can help to achieve congruence of the perspectives and expectations of those who develop proposals and the decision makers who review them.
The foundational consideration for any innovation proposal goes to its core purpose. What are the goals of the project and why would we want to adopt it? What problem are we trying to solve, what change are we trying to effect, what advancement are we trying to achieve through the project? What are the strategic, operational, and/or moral imperatives for engaging in the project, and for doing so now rather than waiting?
As always, the decision maker will ask how the proposal serves the institution’s mission, vision, values and strategic plan.
Both informing and following naturally from purpose is the impact of the proposed project. Senior decision makers will want to know the direct/tangible and indirect/intangible benefits of the project across numerous key areas.
The impact on student access, success, retention, timely degree completion and gainful employment are always of concern as they go to the core mission of the institution. What also are the impacts on institutional effectiveness, efficiency, cost savings, revenue generation, accreditation, reputation and brand? How will the outcomes affect individuals and relationships—faculty, staff, and administrators of the internal community, as well as alumni, and the broader external community and partnerships? Beyond the intended goals, what are the possible unintended negative consequences on the proposal’s target and other elements of the institution?
Contrary to popular belief, cost is not the primary driver for decision makers. Cost considerations are significant, but the context of purpose and impact can mitigate cost barriers. Direct and tangible costs are relatively straightforward to predict and estimate.
Harder to do, and often ignored, are the direct and intangible dollar and time costs of human power in time and effort, as well as technology and facilities usage. Harder still to estimate are the costs of positive and negative impacts on perceptions, morale, reputation, awareness and brand.
Senior decision makers will also want to know if the goals of the project can be accomplished in another way with less or shared resources, or in less time with less effort or human power. For example, can the project be added to, or an extension of, another project, operation, or set of responsibilities? The parallel consequences of funding the proposal can be addressed by answering strategic questions such as: What else can’t we do if this proposal is funded? From what other activities will dollars, people, time and effort be diverted to support this proposal?
Decision makers are acutely aware that the best reasoned and planned innovation project can fall short due to an ineffective execution, and indeed have been burned by such occurrences in the past. To ensure success and protect the best use of institutional resources, decision makers will want to know who will be involved and impacted by the project, in its planning, execution, assessment, sustainability and outcomes. A detailed timeline for the planning, launch, and assessment and evaluation phases is important, and should also indicate when we might first begin to see the impact of the project.
An often-overlooked point is whether the project’s activities are sustainable under the proposed and likely future conditions and levels of funding. Also of interest will be whether the implementation of the project provides the opportunity to explore creative, instructive, relevant, adaptable, interoperable, or new models for other situations and problems.
The assessment, evaluation and accountability plan is a critical consideration as it will allow us to know whether the project has achieved its goals, been successful in additional ways, and been a worthy investment of institutional resources. On the front end, decision makers want to know what data and research indicate that the project is needed, has validity, is feasible, has a reasonable chance of success, and which other institutions or groups have previously attempted the project and their experience in doing so.
Thinking with the end in mind, the proposal should describe the eventual measures and indicators of success and accountable units for each, taking into consideration quantitative and qualitative aspects, direct and indirect indicators, leading and lagging indicators, external benchmarks and internal targets, and return on investment and return on value estimates. The assessment plan would do well to address the maximization of institutional resources by answering strategic questions such as: Are there interim milestones of success, and can they stand alone and be sustained in the absence of completion of the full project? How and when will we know if the project is unsuccessful? Are their opportunities for mid-course corrections and adjustments? How should we proceed if the project is not successful?
Decision makers are also interested in the risks associated with the innovation project, well beyond the simple risk of resources wasted on an unsuccessful initiative. Risks come in many forms, including those that are foreseeable and preventable, unpredictable and uncontrollable, internal and external. Such risks have the potential to impact strategic, operational, financial, compliance, reputational, systemic and localized activities, organizational effectiveness, morale, and governance aspects of the institution.
Taking these into consideration, an overall level of risk assessment can be estimated and should be stated in the proposal—insignificant, low, moderate, high, or extreme. Thinking ahead, decision makers will want to know how the institution will handle specific potential problems and scenarios. Parallel considerations include the potential risks and costs for students, other members of the university community, and the institution if the project isn’t approved and pursued.
Author Perspective: Administrator