What is Business Case Analysis?
Businesspeople everywhere are losing patience with management error. They also demand real accountability for decisions and plans. And, everywhere, the competition for scarce funds is increasing.
No surprise then, that many organizations now require business case support for project, product, investment, and capital acquisition proposals.
Business Case Definition
Even though everyone talks about the business case, surprisingly few really know what that means. Few understand the full business case definition correctly:
The Business Case is an analysis, meant to produce two kinds of results. A successful case delivers
- Forecasts. The business case asks "What happens if we take this or that action?" The case answers in business terms: business costs, business benefits, business risks.
- Proof. Reasoning and evidence make the case for choosing one action over another. The case proves in compelling terms why the chosen action is the better business decision.
Businesspeople sometimes call BCA by other names, probably to highlight the particular focus of a study. They may call it Financial Justification, Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA), Total Cost of Ownership Analysis (TCO), or even Return on Investment Analysis (ROI). In any case, what they mean with these terms usually fits the two-part BCA definition above.
Decision makers and planners rely on solid business case analysis to build the understanding and confidence they need to take action. They need credible forecasts, but they also need trustworthy proof they are choosing the best course of action.
Five Reasons to Write a Business Case: What's the Purpose?
Businesspeople turn to business case analysis to meet a variety of business needs.
- Financial Justification.
The justification case demonstrates that an action meets one of three criteria. The proposed action:
- Earns enough to cover its costs ("pays for itself").
- Is more profitable than other available options.
- Is the lowest cost solution available.
- The analyst must designate one of these as the meaning of justification for a given proposal.
- Decision Support
Given two or more possible courses of action, the business case provides objective, quantitative measures for deciding which action is the better business decision. The case also shows whether or not the business risks with possible actions are acceptable.
Capital review committees, for instance, rely on business case analysis to help prioritize and choose from among incoming funding proposals.
- Business Planning.
The business case can deliver accurate forecasts of future spending needs and incoming revenues.
- Management and Control.
For project and program managers, the case reveals critical success factors and contingencies they must manage to target levels. For business investments of all kinds, the business case provides practical guidance for minimizing costs, maximizing returns, and mitigating risk.
A solid case shows directors, regulators, and government authorities that decisions were made responsibly, with sound judgment, conforming to laws and policies.
The case builder may start with one of these roles in mind, several roles, or all five.
Who Builds the Business Case?
Businesspeople are finding that business case is no longer just a job for Finance in the back office. Financial knowledge helps in every step of the case building process, of course, but the most useful BCA knowledge lies elsewhere. The people best prepared to build the case are those who
- Know the details of day-to-day operations in the business unit.
- Understand the drivers for employee and group performance.
- Have a successful track record managing projects and programs.
As a result, case-building responsibility today rests squarely on those who propose and those who take action. Product managers, engineers, consultants, project managers, IT directors, line managers, and others "in the trenches," are learning that meeting business case needs means building the case themselves.
Understand Business Case Analysis and Write a Successful Business Case
Sections below focus on two themes1
- First, the origins, definition, and standardization of the business case concept.
The modern business case evolved from a nineteenth-century concept, benefit-cost analysis for government public works projects.
The twenty-first-century version of the concept still lacks universal standards. There is an emerging consistency, however, in the local business case standards now turning up in government organizations and private industry firms.
- Second, a step-by-step guide to writing a successful business case.
The 6D Business Case Framework appearing here has proven uniquely successful achieving case results that meet the two-part business case definition (above), while meeting business needs for decision support, planning, management and control, and accountability reporting.
- What is a "business case analysis BCA?"
- Birth of the business case concept.
- Design with business case proof in mind.
- Aim for business case success.
- Take advantage of the 6D Case-Building Framework.
- How to write a successful business case. Six steps to compelling results.
- Business Case vs. Business Plan: How are they different? Are they related?
- Business case-building resources
Case Building Resources
- Business case-focused books, software, and templates: The Master Case Builder Shop.
- Professional training seminars: Building the Business Case Master Class.
- Library of Business Case Examples, various sources: Business Case Studies.
Business Case Origins: Economics, Civil Engineering, Government Works
Evolution of the modern business case began, doubtless, in nineteenth-century Paris, when the government tackled a special public policy problem: finding the optimum toll for using a toll bridge.
The solution came from Jules Dupuit (1804–1866), Chief Engineer for the City of Paris and later Inspector-general of the Corps des Pont et Chaussees. Dupuit was by training a civil engineer, but also a talented self-taught economist. The modern business case has roots in his 1844 Paper, On Tolls and Transport Charges.2 Re-published and elaborated in 1894, this work sets up several issues that are rightly seen as foundation concepts for the twenty-first-century business case:
- How to identify, measure, and value benefits.
In Dupuit's terms, this value is relative utility. His term for this kind of study was benefit-cost analysis.
- The efficiency and distribution of benefits.
- The definition of consumer surplus.
This is the difference between the total amount consumers would willingly pay for a good or service, and the market price they actually pay.
- Consumer demand and price discrimination
Dupuits's focus was government public works, and he also wrote extensively on the government role in railways, bridges, and road systems. The focus on public works spawned a legacy mandate that is alive and well today for government organizations everywhere:
The government business case measures benefits in terms of "value delivered" to a given population.3
What Is the Business Case Role in Business Today?
Business case applications today have moved well beyond the classical focus on government public works. Companies, governments, and non-profits alike, either recommend or require business case support in quite a few formal process areas:
- Board of Directors governance.
- Planning strategy.
- Targeting strategic objectives.
- Managing projects.
- Managing & evaluating programs.
- Product management.
- Planning & evaluating business models.
- Business model planning.
- Choosing & managing investments.
- Prioritizing capital acquisitions.
- Managing asset life cycle.
- Choosing & evaluating pricing models.
- Reporting environmental compliance.
- Budgeting and funding approval.
- Forecasting revenue and costs.
- Selecting vendors, vendor services, products.
- Delivering sales proposals.
- Establishing and reporting accountability.
- Negotiating partnerships and alliances.
- Negotiating labor contracts.
Notice especially that business case requirements do not by themselves add value to a process. Business case requirements are worthwhile and enforceable only where there are business case standards. Standards are indispensable wherever organizations require the BCA.
Where Are the Business Case Standards?
Business Case Analysis often appears under other names. The writer may call it Financial Justification, Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA), Total Cost of Ownership Analysis (TCO), or Return on Investment Analysis (ROI). What people mean with any of these terms usually agrees with the twofold Business Case definition above.
Everyone should know, however, that none of these terms—including business case—has widely-agreed standards. Consequently, organizations must write their own rules for case content and the case-building process. Remember, however, that cases written elsewhere, under other local standards, can be very different.
Standards are necessary wherever business case requirements are in force. The reason is that case builders and decision makers must ultimately agree that cases either are or are not acceptable. Reaching agreement is difficult or impossible, absent standards that are clear, objective, and testable.
Dupuit's 1844 benefit-cost analysis had specific methods and criteria for evaluating the legitimacy of a given benefit-cost study. With just a few exceptions, the same is not true for most business case systems available today. Two exceptions are the British Government's Better Business Case, and the Solution Matrix 6D Business Case Framework (appearing below). Versions of both systems serve successfully as local business case standards for:
- Government organizations: The US Department of Defense, the UK National Health Service, The US Postal Service, California Sonoma County, Washington State Government (USA), NASA (USA), the Danish Ministry of Finance, and the Ghana National Communications Authority, and many others.
- Multinational corporations: Ericsson, IBM, Airbus, Allianz Group, Cisco Systems, and Petronas, and many others.
- Educational and Non-profit organizations: Baylor University (US), University of Pennsylvania (US), University of Otago (NZ), Sprott School of Business (CA), CARE, and many others.
First-time case builders often ask questions like these:
- When is a business case complete?
- What makes it compelling and credible?
- How do you "prove" that one option is the better business decision?
If you are asking these questions, you are not alone. Today, everyone talks about the business case, but very few know what that means or what one looks like.
The Business Case is Similar to a Legal Case
The essential nature of a proper business case has much in common with the legal case in a courtroom trial.
- Both cases present a rationale (reasoning) and support it with evidence.
- Both the trial lawyer and the business case writer are free to select or ignore evidence.
- Both are free to structure arguments as they wish. Whether or not the message succeeds depends on their ability to tell a convincing story.
Usually, there are many ways to tell a compelling story. Consequently, there is no single correct outline or content list for the business case.
Looking beneath the surface, however, successful legal cases and successful business cases have characteristics in common. Both kinds of cases, for instance, present rules for deciding which evidence belongs in the case, and which does not. Decision makers must know with confidence that the case includes all relevant costs and benefits, and only those that are relevant. Clear and precise scope and boundaries statements make this possible.
Absent essential information of that sort, intelligent readers sense the lack instinctively, and case credibility suffers.
Compare Scenarios and Deliver Proof
The real analysis in BCA centers on case scenarios. Case builders think of scenarios as stories, scenes, or pictures, that show business outcomes that follow from given actions. Cases usually have several scenarios representing different action choices. Ultimately, the case scenarios serve as a basis for cost and benefit forecasts and, equally important, scenarios are the mechanism for building business case proof.
The case builder proves that one proposal or another is the better choice for action by comparing two or more carefully designed scenarios.4 The business case, in other words, relies on the same reasoning as the controlled experiemnt in the science laboratory. Lab researchers deliver proof by comparing carefully controlled experimental test conditions.
Success Begins in the Eye of the Beholder
Not all businesspeople understand the meaning of business case success alike. To the manager seeking project funding with a business case, funding approval might seem like a success. To the salesperson, closing a sale with a BCA seems like success. Granted, any decision in the case builder's favor feels like success. Nevertheless, case builders striving solely for that kind of success may be working against themselves. In reality, they may be lowering their chances for a favorable decision.
Case builders better serve their interests—and their organization's interests—by defining business case success differently. The more useful definition takes the view of those responsible for using case results. From their point of view, a successful business case meets three criteria:
A case is credible if everyone with a stake in the results believes the case rationale and case predictions.
- Practical value.
- The case gives decision makers and planners confidence to act.
- It enables them to manage the action for optimum results.
- It discriminates clearly between proposals to implement and those to reject.
The case predicts accurately what happens.
Test Success Criteria in Order
Case builders targeting these criteria improve their chances for favorable decisions. Notice that case reviewers test these criteria in this order:
- Credibility comes first. If no one believes the case, the other criteria do not matter.
- The practical value criterion comes second. If the case does not give decision makers confidence to act, no one will ever know if the predictions are accurate.
Business case success is usually possible only when the case scores high in both parts of the twofold business case definition:
The business case is an analysis, designed to produce two kinds of results. A successful case delivers
- Forecasts. The business case asks "What happens if we take this or that action?" The case answers in business terms: business costs, business benefits, and business risks.
- Proof. Reasoning and evidence make the case for choosing one action over another. The case proves in compelling terms why the chosen action is the better business decision.
Case Builder Beware!
The internet today is awash with books, training, and templates promising to help you answer the "What happens?" question. Most provide little more than a few cost and revenue forecasts for a your action or investment. Forecasts alone, however, are not a complete business case!
To achieve credibility, accuracy, and practical value in real-world business, the case must deliver clear answers to other questions as well: Is funding the proposal a good business decision? Will we really see these results? Can we expect significant non-financial impacts? And, which risks should we know about? Business case proof is compelling and defensible only when case builders address all the questions.
Step-by-step case building advice in the following sections presents the Solution Matrix 6D Case Building Framework. The 6D approach follows the same principles of evidence and reasoning that deliver compelling proof in the courtroom and the science lab. The Framework is unique and proven highly successful.
Build to a Proven Architecture: the 6D Business Case Framework
The 6D name refers to six verbs, each pointing to a step in the 6-step case building process: Define, Design, Develop, Decide, Deploy, and Deliver. The framework is so-named because the D-words are easy to remember, and also because they describe the purpose of each step.
The Framework Outlines Process and Report
The 6D names serve, first, to outline the case-building process. Secondly, however, the same step names also outline the business case report structure and contents. Each process step leads to a significant report section with the same name. In this way, report structure mirrors process structure, exactly.5
Dual use of the framework in this way is intentional. Remember that case building means—above all—building and supporting a rationale. Case reports are compelling when they communicate the rationale directly and openly. This approach works, because report readers are led down the same logical path the case builder has just traveled. When the writer builds this way, case results are likely to survive critical scrutiny, provide useful guidance, and predict accurately what happens.
The 6D process has six steps. For each step, the case builder'-s task is to complete several business case "building blocks." Think of the completed business case as a wall, or structure, built from these blocks. The structure either stands or falls, depending on the builder's skill in arranging blocks so that they support each other.
Steps and Building Blocks Have a Natural Order
The next sections present case-building steps and building blocks in a particular order. Notice especially that the prescribed step sequence is vital, but the ordering of blocks within each step is also crucial.
- Step order is vital for building a seamless, logically sound rationale. The rationale makes the case: "These results follow from this action!"
- Building block order is crucial because later blocks depend on earlier blocks. The cost model, for instance, requires already-completed subject, purpose, and scope and boundaries statements.
The case builder must first define the case before taking any other steps. Case definition begins when the writer identifies business objectives to address with an action or investment. These objectives might include, for instance, reducing costs, improving employee productivity, or increasing sales revenues.
Case definition continues when the case builder proposes specific actions to address these objectives. The case may consider acts such as funding a project, making a capital acquisition, launching a product or service, or making a financial investment..
Describing all available courses of action when case building starts, helps identify the different business case scenarios the case will examine.
Case definition is complete when the case builder and stakeholders describe the purpose of the case. Before designing the case (Step 2), the case builder must first answer "purpose" questions like these: Why is the case being built? Who will use it? For what purpose? What information do they need to meet that purpose?
Step 1 Directions for Defining the Case
- Write the subject statement.
- Describe proposed actions and scenarios to analyze.
- Also, Identify the business objectives the case addresses.
- Describe proposed actions and scenarios to analyze.
- Write the purpose statement.
- Explain who will use the case and for what purpose.
- Also, describe information the case must deliver to meet the purpose.
- Explain why these objectives are important to the organization.
- Also, show how these objectives align with business strategy.
- Also, explain how current strengths, threats, constraints, and opportunities that impact action choice.
Carefully described assumptions and methods help the case builder ensure that all scenarios build by the same rules. As a result, case builder and stakeholders know that different scenario results are comparable.
Stakeholders and others who rely on business case results for making decisions or plans must be able to see for themselves where business case results come from. Step 2 (Design) creates documentation in detail that makes this transparency possible. Design information here serves as the necessary Methods Section of the business case report.
Step 2 Directions for Designing the Case
- Designate case scope and boundaries.
- Explain whose costs and whose benefits belong in the case.
- Also, stipulate the analysis period in view (starting date and duration).
- Identify assumptions essential for forecasting costs and benefits.
- Develop reasoning to legitimize outcomes as benefits.
- Show how specific outcomes contribute to meeting business objectives.
- Explain metrics that make non-financial outcomes tangible.
- Explain how the analysis assigns values to non-financial outcomes.
- To make scenarios comparable, present a single cost model that covers all scenarios.
- Identify all relevant cost categories for the case.
- Identify individual cost items for each cost category.
- Explain methods for estimating costs
Building blocks in this section are the case’s reason for being. The case exists, after all, to answer questions such as: “What financial consequences are likely if we take the proposed action?” “What are the important non financial outcomes? The case builder answers these questions concretely in Step 3.
The case writer should present summaries and analyses objectively and directly, keeping interpretations and explanatory text to a minimum.
Step 3 Directions for Developing the Case
- Forecast each scenario's likely costs and benefits as cash flow events.
- Also, forecast impacts on non-financial key performance indicators (KPIs).
- Summarize each scenarios's cash inflow, cash outflow, metrics results, in a scenario-specific cash flow statement.
- Also prepare an incremental cash flow statement for each scenario. Incremental cash flow is the difference between Expected cash flow in a full-value cash flow statement, and expected cash flow in a baseline scenario ("business as usual" scenario).
In business—as in gambling—the wise investor or wise bettor knows that choosing an action option requires more than a knowledge of projected returns, or ROI. Those figures show only what happens if returns appear as investor hopes.
The wise choice, however, is based on a comparison of (1) potential returns with (2) the likelihood (probability) that they appear.
Step 4 Directions for Deciding the Case
- Analyze and compare financial metrics from each scenario.
- Compare impacts on Important KPIs and other tangible non-financial measures.
- Show how underlying assumptions impact business results.
- Measure the likelihood of different outcomes.
- Identify significant risks.
Building blocks in this section address the most substantial issues appearing initially in the introductory sections of the business case report. The material in Steps 3 and 4 intends to “let the numbers speak for themselves.” In Steps 5 and 6, however, the case writer interprets the numbers and connects them to objectives, decisions, and actions.
Step 5 Directions for Deploying the Case
- Recommend one scenario for action, referring to likely (1) incremental financial results, (2) impacts on important non-financial measures, and (3) risk and sensitivity analysis results.
- Set targets for critical success factors and contingencies to manage.
- Provide tactics for lowering costs, increasing gains, and accelerating gains.
- Identify risks to monitor over time.
- Provide tactics for mitigating risks.
In many organizations, the active role of the business case ends with the submission of a case report, a formal case review, or a decision to fund a proposal. That is unfortunate because the business case analysis, when complete, can provide extremely valuable practical guidance to management during the implementation of the proposal or the life of the investment—guidance for maximizing returns, minimizing costs, and minimizing risks.
For that reason, the 6D Business Case Framework does not end with Step 5, Deploy. The framework has an active role through one more stage, Step 6: Deliver the Business Case. This stage is complete only when the initiative or the investment life ends.
Step 6 Directions for Delivering the Case
- Plan and implement the recommended action scenario.
- Monitor stakeholder success in tracking changes in key assumptions, and adjusting control actions when necessary. Let the Step 4 risk and sensitivity analyses and Step 5 recommendations guide real-time investment control. show stakeholders how to maximize investment performance: Minimize costs, maximize gains, accelerate accelerate gains.
- Validate and update significant assumptions continuously.
- Validate and update the business case financial model continuously as assumptions change and tasks reach completion.
- Validate incoming costs and benefits, continuously, and update business case forecasts when necessary.
Some business people use the terms business case and business plan more or less interchangeably. And, some use one term when they mean the other. As a result, case builders often must define these terms, precisely, and clarify the difference. In fact, the critical distinction is easy to summarize.
The business case is about an action, while the business plan is about the business.
Questions For the Business Plan
The business plan addresses issues like these:
- What will the business look like in one year? In three years? In other words, what will financial position and earnings look like then?
- How can the business achieve those results?
- What sales, margins, and revenues can we expect next year?
- How long will it take for a start-up company to earn a profit?
The business plan answers such questions by providing:
- Predictions and target objectives for future financial results.
- Important risk factors that would bring different business results. The plan also presents strategies for dealing with threats and reducing risks.
- A business model. The model shows where and how the company expects to spend money, bring in revenues, and earn margins.
- Fundamental assumptions and trends for projecting business results. These may focus on business volume, market demand, and competitor actions. Management tracks these factors carefully and updates them when necessary.
- Guidance for setting and prioritizing business objectives.
- Spending and revenue forecast for budgeting and planning.
Questions for the Business Case
The business case focuses on a single action or decision. The business case addresses issues like these:
- What financial outcomes followif we choose option X?
- Are there significant non-financial outcomes we expect under option X?
- What is the capital budget impact if we buy service vehicles instead of leasing them?
- How do we justify the investment in new phone technology? Is there a positive ROI?
The business case addresses such questions by projecting cost and benefit cash flows that follow from the action. Also, the business case also anticipates non-financial impacts on crucial key performance indicators.
Comparing the Business Case to the Business Plan
The table below summarizes and contrasts critical differences between the business case and business plan.
|A Business Case...||A Business Plan...|
|Is organized around:||A single action or single decision and its alternatives.||An organization or the whole enterprise. Also, the plan may cover a single product or product line.|
|Predicts:||Cash flow results and critical non-financial impacts that follow from the action.||Business performance of the organization. These are the main sections of the Income statement. And, the plan may also include Pro-forma Balance sheets for future years.|
|Focuses on:||Business objectives for the action||Business objectives for the organization.|
|Is based on:||A cost model and a benefits rationale. These are designed specifically for the case.||The company business model. This model shows where and how the company earns margins. It also indicates likely trends, competitor actions.|
|Measures:||Financial metrics such as NPV, IRR, ROI, payback, and TCO, based on projected cash flows. Case results also include critical non-financial impacts.||Business performance in terms such as sales, margins, and profits. Also, The plan measures business "health" concerning Balance sheet categories.|
|In a non-profit or government organization:||The scope of the case includes benefits and costs to the organization. And, it may also include the population served.||The plan may focus on funding and budgetary needs. The emphasis is on these needs because staying within the operating budget is a primary objective.|
For a complete introduction to business case analysis and case building, see the Solution Matrix Ltd. ebooks:
- The Business Case Guide, 3rd Ed. ISBN 978-1-929500-14-7
- Business Case Essentials, 5th Ed. ISBN 978-1-929500-03-1
- Business Case Templates 2019 Package (Word + Excel + PowerPoint).
For more on financial metrics and financial modeling, please see the spreadsheet-base apps:
For quality professional training in case building, we invite you to join a Solution Matrix seminar. Our flagship event is the 3-day course "Building the Business Case Master Class." Public offerings meet several times each year in New York City, London, and Washington DC. Private offerings meet in all months, worldwide. For more on the premier business case seminars, see