Think of your business case as your sales pitch. It’s essentially a document (which is usually combined with a presentation) that explains how your proposed initiative aligns with the overall goals of those of your boss, the board, stakeholder, sponsors — or whoever else it is you’re trying to secure investment and/or support from.
In a nutshell, your business case should help decision-makers scrutinize their investments and ensure the proposed project will provide value compared to alternative options. Think of it as an opportunity for you to present your initiative and show off its benefits.
Business case vs. project proposal
The term business case is often used interchangeably with ‘project proposal,’ and while they’re both tools for convincing stakeholders to invest time or resources, they are two subtly different things, each done at a different stage of the project.
A project proposal comes before the business case. It’s developed during the early stages of an initiative and focuses on your a project’s vision, its benefits, time and cost estimates, and impact on the organization. As with a business case, its initiation relies on the approval of stakeholders or board members.
A business case is the next stage of your sales pitch. It sets out, in more detail, the why, what, how and whos of a project. A key difference is that while a project proposal outlines budgets and return on investment, a business case explains financial requirements in more detail.
Some people like to do both, whereas others choose to combine them and present just one highly detailed project proposal instead. That’s absolutely fine. Your choice depends on time constraints, presenting opportunities, and the preferences of you and your investors. As with a project proposal, the initiative can’t progress until the stakeholders or investors have accepted or revised this.
Next comes a statement of work (SOW for short). This is a detailed, formal document that defines exactly what makes up a project to guarantee work carries out according to expectations.
And finally, a project charter is a formal document setting out how the project will be managed, including assumptions, risks, scope, budgets, and timelines. It’s something you create after your business case and project proposal has been given the green light.
How to create a business case
Step 1: Understand your problem and define your opportunity
Many projects fail because there simply isn’t a need for the product or initiative. So before you begin, make sure your proposal is answering a real need. It sounds obvious, but literally millions of products, apps, business ventures, and projects have fallen flat because they didn’t get this first part right.
Step 2: do your market research
Once you’ve defined a real need for your initiative, then do some market research. And do it thoroughly. Have any initiatives like yours existed before? If no, then you have a unique opportunity. If they have, then explain how yours is different. When you site past similar-sounding ventures failed, explain why and how yours will overcome their issues. When you site one’s that succeeded, then again explain how your project will leverage on their success, while still differentiating itself.
Pro tip: Create a business SWOT chart to organize your thoughts and pinpoint your initiatives strengths and weaknesses.
And remember to research thoroughly. You don’t want to be stood up in the presentation explaining to the board that what the world really needs right now is bacon flavored floss, only to be told it already exists. (Queue awkward silence…)
Step 3. Think of a plan B. And a plan C, D….
Speaking of awkward silences, make sure you always, always, have a backup plan. You know those moments during a pitch or an interview when someone asks a really reasonable question, and the poor candidate just doesn’t have an answer? It’s so awkward. Make sure that doesn’t happen to you.
Choosing the right solution is tricky, and there are bound to be unanswered questions. It’s okay to not have a solution to every single question, but you’ll stand in better stead if you’ve shown you’ve considered these issues, rather than having the board highlight them making you look unprepared.
The best thing to do is to have a series of alternative routes or solutions prepared, along with their respective benefits and risks, costs, and feasibility. The more you plan ahead, the more prepared you’ll look.
A good way to make sure you’ve considered every avenue is to run your proposal past your colleagues and non-work people. Your colleagues will address business-specific questions you perhaps hadn’t considered, and non-work people will ask those important questions that people working in the industry or business sometimes overlook.
Step 4: Show you’re the expert
OK, so I know we told you to have backup plans and alternative routes. But that doesn’t mean you should throw them all at the board and see which one sticks. They want you to tell them what you think is best. So choose your preferred route, then rank the other options, being sure to explain why you think this is the best way to go.
Step 5: Describe your implementation plan
It’s not enough to simply talk the talk. Next, you’ll need to show off your practicality! This project is your baby, so if it gets the go-ahead, you’ll be the expert people turn to.
Show you’ve thought about how the initiative will look once it begins. This includes outlining your resource requests (backed up by reasons), and your plans for managing the project, including process improvement methodologies (if appropriate), and project management tools for tracking and automation.
You’ll need to show your stakeholders you’ve plotted our a clear path to achieving your goals. As we mentioned before, it’s a good idea to consider alternative routes to demonstrate your depth of understanding and diligence.
And remember, this isn’t an opportunity to look at the world through rose-tinted glasses (aka optimism bias) and lead your stakeholders into a false sense of security; practice due diligence and talk them through the risks, as well as the opportunities. That way, when you start your project, there’ll be no nasty surprises. A successful business case demonstrates a strong vision, backed up by thorough research.
Step 6: Double-check you’ve included the key components
What should your business case include? Everyone’s different, but the following list contains the key elements.
- Executive summary (aka preface)
- Contents page/slide
- Business description/mission statement
- Product or service description
- Marketing strategy
- Competitors analysis
- SWOT diagram: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats
- Implementation plan
- Operations overview (including drivers, scope, risks, benefits, and assumptions)
- Financial plan
- Conclusions and next steps
Step 7: make it look professional
Finally, you’ll want your plan to look as neat, tidy, and professional as possible, so use the proper tools for all your data. Avoid having to mess around with weird Word formatting, and go straight for a quality app.
Make the details easy to understand at a glance, so that you can focus on wowing stakeholders with the benefits. And once you have buy-in? Invest in flexible project management software, such as Backlog, so you can track every piece of work, create a running history of every task, and make your project as smooth and successful as possible.
In fact, why keep it until project kick-off? Use PM software to set reminders, track your tasks, and keep all your research, graphs and plans in one cloud-based place to set your business case off on the right foot — before you’ve even stepped into the boardroom!