Expect Serious Critics at Your Business Case Review. Be Prepared!

Captain’s Log, Entry 8166.1—Your business case critic comes with the turf. You can avoid a potentially damaging critique at your business case review if you take steps to prevent it. Anticipate the critic and prepare for the expectable criticisms.

No matter when or how you prepare your business case, there will be a sinister, uninvited guest in the room when you present it for review: the business case critic. You can’t bar this person from the meeting and speaking to everyone present.

Know for certain the critic will be there, working against you. This person “comes with the turf,” whenever you project future business results. The critic’s name is The Credibility Question. Your critic is the moving force behind questions like these:

Your Critic Will Ask …

Expect your business case critic.

  • Will we actually see the results that you project?
  • How do we know that you compared different options for action fairly?
  • What are the chances that results turn out differently from your predictions?

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 financial metrics and business case projections, see Business Case Essentials or Financial Metrics Pro).

When a business case fails to achieve the outcome you want—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 potential criticism 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:

  • First appears a statement of a 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 with the same training in the same science need to know how you obtain the results. They need to know this in order to decide for themselves whether or not they mean what the author says they mean. Therefore, 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 Business Case Essentials).

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 a sensitivity analysis.
  • Giving management specific guidance on what to manage and what to control, in order to bring the results you project. This means, in other words, identifying critical success factors.
  • Estimating the likelihood of getting different outcomes if important assumptions change. This is risk analysis. Read more about risk analysis in Business Case Essentials.
  • Showing, where possible, that your approaches to “costing” or “valuing” are valid, drawing upon your own case building experience.

In conclusion, none of the credibility-building steps above come about by accident. Credibility will be there only if you plan for it and only if you design it into the case. That process begins as soon as you know you need a business case.

Expect Your Business Case Critic. Take Action!

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By Marty Schmidt. Copyright © 2004-2020.
Solution Matrix Limited, Publisher.

Author: Marty Schmidt

Marty Schmidt is Founder and President of Solution Matrix Limited, a Boston-based firm specializing in Business Case Analysis. Dr. Schmidt leads the firm's Management Consulting, Publishing, and Professional Training activities. He holds the M.B.A degree from Babson College and a Ph.D. from Purdue University. View all posts by Marty Schmidt