A well-written business case is the starting gun for any proposed project. It is important to make sure it doesn't misfire when handed to the corporate decision-makers, whether that's a department head, the board of directors, or the chief executive.
A good business case will provide senior management with the information they need to confidently make a decision in favour of a project. After that, they may retain it to review the project at different stages, and ensure everything is going to plan.
Any changes that differ from the project plan may impact the business financially and in other ways, so it's important to cover all the angles from the outset.
A sound business case will convince management that the project will be properly managed, that the company has the capability to achieve the desired benefits, and that the project will target the highest value opportunities, and be delivered using the most cost-effective methods.
The business case can also help to explain and clarify timelines, and interdependency between departments, stakeholders and partner organisations.
Here are eight guidelines on writing a strong business case, which should help to ensure the project gets off the ground and stays on track.
The first section will explain why you are proposing to carry out a specific project, and the justification for investment.
It is essential to do your homework. This means being convinced yourself that the project has merits, and recognising why you want the investment.
Secondly, ensure that you have discussed the project with stakeholders, individuals, departments, partners and customers who might be affected by the project.
Getting their views on the project before presenting a formal business case can be extremely valuable, as different perspectives yield useful information, raise unforeseen issues and perhaps even unearth unexpected business benefits.
A compelling first section to the business case will also capture both the quantifiable (e.g. financial, ROI, time efficiency) and unquantifiable (e.g. enhanced working environment, better customer services) characteristics of the project.
Use this section to describe the various options to achieving the goal, to ensure that management have the full picture.
Each option should carry the pros and cons of a particular route, and the reasons why one particular solution is favoured above the rest. Describing the options can also help to clarify why you have chosen a particular approach.
This part of the argument will also show that you have looked at the project from different angles in order to find the best approach for the business. It indicates you are adaptable rather than rigid about your approach.
Finally, providing senior management with all the available information will help stakeholders to suggest improvements in the plan, which ultimately benefits the project as a whole.
This is where you can describe in more granular detail the benefits of the project, both quantifiable and unquantifiable. Projected cost savings will help your case, as will projected IT or employee performance improvements.
But equally, improved staff or customer relations, faster time to market, supply chain efficiencies, or enhanced sales processes can all provide strong arguments in favour of the project.
Cost is an important part of the business case for any project. So this section should offer several carefully-costed options, along with the merits and drawbacks of investing in a particular area of the project.
Costs might vary greatly depending on whether the project will be handled in-house, or whether you need to bring in external service companies or technical expertise, or outside recruitment or training specialists, for example.
There may also be a range of cost options for different resources – whether projects require in-house IT investment, for example, or whether services can be procured in the Cloud.
Also remember that time comes at a cost, as do delays and complications. With this in mind, it is worth noting that inactivity is also part of the cost equation.
Gap analysis can be used, which is a business tool that helps the business to compare its actual performance with its potential performance. It may involve looking at business processes, technologies, and whether resources are allocated optimally.
The executive board will want to look closely at the risk aspect of the project. This will particularly be the case where it involves a disruption to the business, or affects the relationship with partners or customers.
Transparency about risk will help to gain the confidence of the managers you are trying to convince. It will also show that you are realistic about the project, and have foreseen any difficulties that may emerge.
One way that you can help to mitigate risk is by offering to monitor and meet key performance indicators, and achieve measurable goals, such as time, money, and degrees of completion.
It is important to give a realistic timescale for the project, to ensure there is sufficient time for everything to be done.
You will need to communicate how long the project will take, and also the activities and goals of each stage of the project, along with their projected timeframes.
Also include any areas where there may be slippage, for example if there are variables associated with the delivery of particular IT equipment and so on.
7. Investment Appraisal
The investment appraisal is a cost benefit analysis, where you argue the case for the project being a worthwhile investment.
Senior management will want to know that they are getting the best value for money. So the investment appraisal will detail the costs and benefits over a fixed period of time, to give an indication to the business of ‘value for money’.
8. Project Evaluation
One final exercise that is worth doing is to evaluate the whole business case in an objective light.
Revisit the benefits you have promised the business as a result of the project, as well as your preferred option, timeframes and costs. Remember to get feedback from trusted colleagues.
Once you are satisfied with your business case, you can take it to the business with confidence.
Resources for writing project business plans
Business Case Essentials: A Guide to Structure and Content - Marty J. Schmidt
How to Prepare a Business Case for IT Investment - Dan Remenyi
IT Project Management: On Track from Start to Finish, Third Edition - Joseph Phillips
Making the Business Case: How to create, write and implement a successful business plan - James Cannon
Making the Business Case: Proposals That Succeed for Projects That Work - Ian Gambles
Project Benefits Management: Linking Projects to the Business – Dr Trish Melton, Peter Iles-Smith, Jim Yates
Real Project Planning: Developing a Project Delivery Strategy (Project Management Toolkit) – Dr Trish Melton