The field of project management emerged as a best practice for the completion of one-time, temporary endeavors intended to develop a unique result, typically outside of a company’s day-to-day business. Usually built around a single outcome, projects tend to cross company departments, requiring cooperation and input from various groups who may not normally interact in the regular course of business.

Project management occurs naturally in any successful and progressive business, though it emerged as its own discipline during the the mid-20th century. With this formalization came both theory and models of operation that were designed to guide projects from conception through completion. Project proposals and project outlines, although sometimes used interchangeably, cover different aspects and purposes in the project management cycle.

The Origin of a Project

Typically, a project begins when the need for change is recognized. This may be, for example, to develop a new product to expand a sales line, or to troubleshoot a production bottleneck. Projects are defined by these changes, which then become the project goals. Either a project proposal or outline may be the next step in the project process, depending on how the project itself is formally created.

The Project Proposal

Since there is often more than one approach to achieving a project outcome, project proposals may be solicited before one course of action is chosen. The project proposal then addresses each aspect of an approach and its projected impact on the project outcome. These aspects could include a variety of impact observations, such as cost, sales or production analyses.

Project proposals may also be part of a funding process, such as with projects undertaken by not-for-profit organizations, for example. The project proposal in this instance would serve as a document to influence funding decisions.

The Project Outline

Generally, an internal document, the project outline serves as the working plan that guides the collective steps of the project. It is possible that the project outline may come before proposals, after proposals or even with no proposals. It’s rare, however, that a managed project proceeds without an outline. The outline may serve as the basis for timelines and action items necessary for on-time completion.

The project outline is more likely to be a technical document and therefore more steeped in company jargon and internal culture than a proposal may be.

Message and Tone

Perhaps the most fundamental difference between project outlines and project proposals can be summed up with “how” and “why.” Outlines are principally focused on procedure, or how the outcome will be accomplished, whereas the proposal deals more with why the outcome is necessary. There are overlaps, since proposals may need to include steps to justify the decision making process, but the intent of each document generally defines it as an outline or proposal.