Writing a Great Business Case - Part 1

If you want your company to spend a million dollars on a new project, product, or other venture, shouldn't you at least string a few words and numbers together to justify the investment? What about $100,000, $50,000, or even $10,000? I am astounded every day by the level of investment that many clients are willing to make without any formal business case or project plan. For those that do complete a business case, it is often just lip service to fill in some paperwork and arrive at a pre-determined decision to proceed.

The flip side of this, of course, is the organizations that have onerous documentation, stage gates, and other hurdles to make the smallest investment or proceed with the simplest project. There's no doubt that these companies are stifling creativity just to keep a big PMO busy; but this is a newsletter topic for another day...back to writing a great business case.

Writing a Business Case

First things first: for projects of similar size, impact, and importance to an organization, everyone should be subject to the same process and documentation requirements...without exception. With that constant in place, good business casing should follow a few simple principles:

  1. Always start with a template. The ultimate goal of creating a business case is to compete for scarce resources on a level playing field. A good template that is used consistently is the best first step to treating all ideas equally. The template also gives the business case author some guidance to get started and collect their thoughts.
  2. Provide real support to business case authors. The template helps authors get started, but we need to remember the main reason most people hate completing business cases is not because they don't have the time...it is because we are asking them to work outside their comfort zone. There must be well established, and easy to access support from IT, HR, finance, and legal at the very least to help authors provide a well thought out and compelling case to secure an investment.
  3. Ensure the business case review process is dynamic. Making project investment decisions annually just isn't enough. Alternately, asking everyone to drop everything to review business cases without some reasonable notice is not helpful either. Every company should have a regular schedule to review investment decisions on a monthly or quarterly schedule.
  4. Be provocative and even a little confrontational. The purpose of a business case is not to gloss over potential issues, obstacles, and risks just to get the investment and move on. You want to use a business case to highlight potential weaknesses, expose obstacles, and draw out potential spoilers before you get approval. Stakeholders will not only respect your candor, they will help you mitigate issues in the planning stage. It is better to find out what, or who, is lurking in the shadows before you get approval. You will dramatically improve your chances of a successful execution.
  5. Compare apples to apples. Understand the total costs of your investment from 2 perspectives: First, the incremental costs to the organization. These are the true new costs of going ahead with your proposed project. This won't include all the time of people and resources already employed by the organization, but will include backfill for employees that are being seconded to the project. Second, the total cost to the organization including all the internal (soft) costs. Make sure your project is being compared on the same basis.

With these simple systemic principles in place, the really important considerations are what we actually put in our business case. That will be the topic of our next newsletter.

Get Started with Business Planning Boot Camp

If you need to write a business case, strategic plan, business plan, vision statement, or any other business material, we can help. Our Business Planning Boot Camp package includes a variety of tools, templates, and resources to help you get started the right way. Be sure to sign up for our newsletter, as well, to receive free actionable advice.