Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bulletproof Your Business Case

No matter when or how you prepare your business case, there will be a sinister, uninvited stranger in the room when you present it for review. You can't bar him from the meeting. You can't prevent him from speaking to everyone present.

Know for certain that he will be there and he will be working against you. He "comes with the turf," whenever you project future business results. His name is The Credibility Question. He is the moving force behind questions like these:
  • How do we know that we'll actually see the projected results?
  • How do we know that you compared different options for action fairly?
  • What's the likelihood that results turn out differently from what you have predicted?

Such questions are inevitable when you project ROI or other business case results. You are predicting the future, after all. (For a complete introduction to business case projections, see the whitepaper Business Case Essentials or the eBook Business Case Guide). When a business case fails to achieve the desired outcome—funding or project approval, for instance—it is often because the author was surprised by the questions or answered unconvincingly. How well you anticipate and address the issues they raise can make or break the case.

The uninvited stranger is not easily neutralized, however, if you wait until you complete and present the case to think about him for the first time. The key to scoring high on credibility is to build in "bulletproofing" as you build the case.

Reveal Your Methods
If you have ever read or written scientific research reports of any kind, you know that most science "cases" have the same structure:

  • There is a statement of theory, hypotheses, and the problem or issue in view.
  • Later in the report come the results of the experiment or field study.

But that much alone does not establish the validity of the results or "make the case" for the author's conclusions. Other people trained in the same science need to know how the results were obtained, in order to decide whether or not they mean what the author says they mean. Thus, science reports include a "Methods" section presenting the author's assumptions, experimental protocol, testing conditions, and so on.

For exactly the same reasons, a business case report needs to explain how cost and benefit items were identified and how their values were estimated. This means:

  • Defining the case subject fully (not just naming the subject).Indicating specifically whose costs and benefits are included, over what time period (scope and boundaries of the case).
  • Explaining the rules for deciding which cost items are appropriate (usually through a cost model).
  • Presenting the rationale for legitimizing benefits (explaining how the action contributes to business objectives and why reaching those objectives has value. For more on legitimizing benefits, see the whitepaper "Soft Benefits in a Hard Business Case or the Business Case Guide).

Build in Cross Functional, Cross Organizational Input
Important actions in a complex business environment usually have consequences that cross boundaries of all kinds: organizations, functions, budgetary categories, management levels, and more. The business case analysis of these actions gains credibility when it has cross-functional, cross-organizational input from knowledgeable people in each of the areas impacted.

Contributors from outside your own immediate group can help you fill in the cost model, legitimize benefits, and estimate the cost or value of different impacts with an authority that you cannot achieve on your own or with just your own people.

Transfer Ownership
Getting business case input from people outside your own group also builds credibility in another way: it creates a transfer of ownership. People who work on something and contribute to its design naturally develop some sense of ownership for it. The business case coming up for review is no longer just your case. It is their case as well.

Ideally, your group of contributors will even include stakeholders and potential decision making recipients for the case. Because they helped build it, they understand the rationale and logic behind it better than anyone who simply reads the report. People who work on something usually do not want it to fail.

Design for Credibility
You can add credibility through other case-building steps as well, by:

  • Explaining which assumptions behind the case are most important in controlling predicted results (this is sensitivity analysis).
  • Reviewing what has to be managed or controlled in order to bring about the expected results (in other words, identifying critical success factors).
  • Estimating the likelihood of getting other predicted outcomes, if important assumptions change (this is risk analysis. Read more about risk analysis in Newsletters 47-49, "Can you ever be Certain?).
  • Showing, where possible, that your approaches to "costing" or "valuing" have been validated in previous experience.

In brief, none of the credibility-building steps above comes about by accident. Credibility will be there only if it is planned and designed into the case in a process that begins as soon as soon as it's known that a business case is needed.

Take action by learning more in a business case seminar or read The Business Case Guide.

Marty Schmidt
24 June 2008

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