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Three fatal business case blunders and how to avoid them


So your department wants to buy some technology to undertake a business process transformation? Take a number and get in line. Getting support and funding for your initiative is a competition in which you’ll likely be vying against ten or twenty other initiatives for the limited dollars available with in your company.


A lot of these initiatives will be tied directly to increasing revenue (and who doesn’t love that?), so to get the attention of the judges who’ll be awarding resources, you’ll need an airtight, executive-ready business case.


Most people who need to build a business case are experts in some other area, and building a business case is learned on the job by trial and error. By error, I mean

having your business case shot down and seeing resources allocated to other, maybe less worthy initiatives. Has this happened to you?



I’ve helped people build hundreds of successful business cases. I see the same three fatal errors over and over again: Myopia, lack of balance and unintelligible language. Here’s how to avoid these common errors and make sure your business case has a fighting chance of winning the day—or at least getting fair consideration.


Address the big picture

Most business cases I see are myopic. They are predicated on departmental objectives and don’t take into account how their proposal impacts the goals of the company. Frequently they don't even take into account other stakeholders, such as Finance, IT, or other business units. Their whole case is based on their view of the world.


Keep in mind there are always other issues unfolding at your company. Does your business case tie into the company's goals, or even the CFO's goals? Build collaborative partnerships, primarily with finance but also with other stakeholders, so you can understand their view of the world and make sure your business case speaks to the bigger picture and not just departmental concerns.



Balance costs and benefits

It’s very common to give a lot of attention to costs, with a very detailed cost breakdown, and a relatively cursory mention of the benefits. Nobody wants to over promise and under deliver, so people tend to make the benefits very wishy –washy. Then the whole case is so weakwinning business caseFor your business case to rise above the rest, you must avoid the most common errors. that if pales in comparison to other business cases. Make sure that in the effort not to overstate your case you don’t wind up selling your initiative short.


Sure, cost details are usually easier to come up with, but executives don't need precision to the second decimal place. A ballpark estimate based on certain assumptions is what they're looking for.


Benefits can be harder to quantify than costs, but it’s essential you do the work. There are benefits that can be quantified, and then there are the intangibles, things like impact on customer satisfaction, or productivity or efficiency. Your numbers should be defensible, and at the same time not too conservative.


If the starting point for your benefits is something soft like “improved visibility” or “better control”, use the “So what?” test to put a ballpark number on it. Keep asking “So what?” until you end up with a value driver that can be quantified.


That said, not everything can be quantified. Intangible benefits count too, and they should be included as part of the business case.


Speak the native language of your audience

If you want to communicate with a teenager, send them a text message or a snap chat.

To communicate with executives use language they can understand. Too many business cases I see are written in language that is too detailed, too departmental, or both.


I've seen business cases with detailed diagrams of system architecture--this is how it will look, this is how it's going to interact with the other systems, etc. Don’t go there!


Executives don’t want or need to know the details, but they do need to know the takeaways. Also, stay away from acronyms and technical jargon that no one who works outside your department will understand. Translate everything into plain English, or better yet, use some of the vocabulary specific to your audience.


Putting it all together

As a departmental leader and expert in your department’s needs, you own some of the building of your business case. But don’t build it in a vacuum—that’s the root cause of the three fatal errors.


Look to partner with others who can help you align your goals with organizational goals, identify and quantify benefits as well as costs, and translate your proposal into the audience’s language.


Lead your business case with the benefits. Shine a spotlight on what’s sexiest about your initiative—the value it will deliver. Try to end up with roughly the same amount of detail around benefits and costs. Keep the numbers high-level, defensible and not overly conservative. If you can do those things, I guarantee your business case will be head and shoulders above 90% of the competition.


Amit Duvedi is Vice President, Business Strategy Value Management for Coupa. This article previously appeared on the IBM Smarter Commerce Blog.


Amit Duvedi

Amit Duvedi , Vice President, Business Strategy Value Management For Coupa

Prior to Coupa Amit served as VP of Consultative Sales and Strategy for SAP.