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The Secret to Writing a Better Business Case

Writing a business case can be frustrating. You might feel like you are being asked to explain the obvious. But that’s only because it’s obvious to you.

Whether you are justifying your case to your boss, a project manager, or a committee, the challenge remains the same. You know more about the topic and the reasoning than anyone else.

That’s why you are the one writing the business case.

As you begin writing, you may find that it is helpful to step back and view things from a broader perspective.

You might like the challenge of simplifying things into more common business terms, considering the bigger picture, and even working through the details of outcomes, budgets, and plans.

But you can get lost here too. And you might forget one of the most important elements of successful business cases.

Options.

While it’s great to have goals and objectives neatly defined and a specific solution to offer, these alone can be problematic.

Because you may be pinning down decision makers too early.

You are taking too much power away from them by limiting their choice to a simple yes or no.

You are also taking too much power away from yourself by presenting something that appears to be too simple.

In both cases, the problem is that you are not showing enough thinking.

This is the same reason your high school math teacher always wanted you to “show your work.” Getting the right answer was less important than practicing the process and understanding the principles that made the math work.

The same is true here.

People can only gain confidence in your business case if they can see that the thinking is sound. Because you are not only asking them to approve your recommendation, you are asking them to endorse it.

Their name becomes associated with the project and they are becoming invested in the outcome of this specific choice.

So, you are better off making the decision makers feel empowered. You do this by sharing options.

Why are options such a powerful element of a winning business case?

If I ask you to consider why options are such a powerful element of a winning business case, I’ve just invited you into my thinking.

That’s what options can do for you. They can provide an invitation for deeper engagement.

Now that you’re inside my head, I can walk you through why I think this is so important.

You may have heard the phrase “everyone is in sales.” It’s a bit cliche, but it’s also true.

Certainly, in the writing of a business case you are trying to make a sale. So it makes sense to be as persuasive as possible.

Options can help tremendously.

Take the simple sales technique of anchoring.

If you walk into a store and see that big fancy new high-def TV on the end cap is $1,000, you might agree that it looks great but that $1,000 is an expensive price.

If a salesperson approaches you and tells you that she has a similar model that’s nearly identical in features but is only $600, it will feel like a great option. Because you can’t help but compare it to the anchor price of $1,000 that you first encountered.

This is why sales tags are often in that crossed-out markdown format. It creates a reference point for you that is aimed at persuading you that the current price is a good option.

Options provide reference points. And reference points are influential.

Maybe you like a $25 bottle of wine. But if it’s presented at the top of the wine list, it’s might feel too expensive. If it’s presented at the bottom of the wine list, it might feel too cheap.

If there’s a $100 bottle above it and a $12 bottle below it, you will probably feel good about your choice.

It’s the same bottle of wine. The difference is how you feel about the choice. That’s why you are providing options in writing your business case.

What if you don’t really have options to present for the business case that you’re writing?

Whatever solution you have landed on, you have certainly considered alternatives.

There is always the option of doing nothing. Maybe the problem doesn’t get solved right now. Or the opportunity passes us by. But doing nothing is a valid choice that is worth considering.

And it’s probably worth spelling out the costs and implications of doing nothing. Even if that helps to underscore the problem or opportunity.

But, you probably also considered more options than seems obvious to you. Maybe you just need to think those through a bit more.

I find it helpful to consider some edge cases, even if they seem a bit crazy.

You might question common assumptions or long-held beliefs. Maybe you would explore ideas that would be possible with unlimited funding. Perhaps there is some approach that would work if you could do things differently than your usual business practices.

You could explore ideas like changing vendors, swapping out entire systems, changing other parts of the business model, or changing other business practices and policies.

You won’t present all of these ideas, but you should land on a few touchstones that would be helpful to illustrate your thinking.

You might be able to clarify the case why certain elements of change don’t seem viable at this point. Or why some approaches are too costly in terms of change management or staffing or customer relations.

The point is to show some big picture thinking.

Chances are that’s the sort of thing the decision makers need to consider. You will be helping them think through those implications. At the same time, you will be helping them to build confidence in you by demonstrating that you are also thinking along those lines.

How to present your recommendation as the best option

As you present the different options, each needs to be run through the same sort of justification embedded in any business case.

There needs to be a solid reason why you are proposing something. So each option must address the problem or opportunity head on.

Each option must deliver certain benefits. This will be some sort of answer to the problem or opportunity and perhaps some additional elements due to the way in which it addresses the issue at hand.

When you talk about benefits, it’s also important to talk about the long-term implications. Everyone wants to be moving in a strategically sound direction.

Each options comes with certain risks. Ignoring risks is a sure-fire way to get your thinking discounted. Everything comes with some risks. Addressing them head on is critical to your business case.

Each option has costs. You should present both hard and soft costs, even if you can’t be super precise in all areas. It’s also a good idea to show costs over some time period, such as a 5-year span. Rarely is there any option that doesn’t have some continued cost (or savings) in future years.

Each option has a time scale. Timeframe is usually an important factor. There is a reason you are addressing this problem or opportunity right now. And there is a need or desire to have it addressed within some factor of the business cycle.

As you build out the case for each option, you can resolve your business case with an evaluation.

Here is where you can justify the option that you recommend.

In addition to the costs and timeframes above, there is probably a reason why one strategy is superior to the others in your view.

And it may not always be the cheapest or fastest option. Remember the wine list scenarios?

It’s probably to your advantage if your recommended solution lands somewhere in the middle. That may help decision makers feel most comfortable with the solution.

Beyond that positioning, there are some additional effective ways to support your recommendation.

Present what peer organizations have done. Most business leaders don’t want to be too far out of line with what is seen as best practice within their industry (even though they may say otherwise).

Peers could be similar organizations. Or users of the same system. Or practitioners of the same function.

You can also provide support for your choice by citing recommendations of authorities in your space. Perhaps there are respected thinkers who have espouse winning strategies and ideas.

For instance, you may not be running a theme park, but you might leverage thinking from a business like Disneyland that is seen as a leader in customer experience.

Finally, you can point to commitments of the organization itself. Perhaps this solution is well-supported by the mission of the organization, an element of its strategic plan, or any similar idea that you can latch on to.

There is an inclination for people and organizations to be consistent between their talk and actions. Emphasizing this can help support your case.

At the end of the day, you simply want to be able to show that you thought this through and landed on the best possible answer.

We considered X, but it was too costly. We considered Y, but this created new challenges. We looked at option Z also, but it doesn’t fully solve the problem.

This is why we landed on option W, the winning choice. And it works well for us because of A, B, and C.

Options are your best option

The secret sauce of your business case is options.

Whether you are justifying your case to your boss, a project manager, or a committee, you need to convince them that your recommendation is worthy.

Of course, you need to present a solution that meets the goals and objectives that you’ve clearly stated.

You need to include costs, benefits, timelines, and outline the risks.

But all of that will be far more effective across a range of options.

Because showing the options you considered helps to engage the decision makers in your thinking. It helps them to better understand why the option you are recommending really is the best option.

Reviewing the options helps them to weigh everything out and come to the same conclusion as you. Your thinking becomes their thinking.

Then, they can more easily endorse your recommendation.

If you haven’t explored multiple options yet, you need to do that as part of building your business case. You can look at everything from doing nothing to edge cases that seem a little bit crazy.

Finding and exploring options–and then presenting them well–will strengthen your thinking and the business case that you are writing.