A business plan is a straightforward document. In it, you’ll include market research, your overall goals for the business, and your strategies for achieving those goals.
But what’s a business case, and why do you need one if a business plan outlines everything else?
A business case zooms in. It looks at a specific problem and how you can solve it. Think of a business case as the reason you create a project that you’re going to manage in the first place.
While a business plan tackles how you want to fashion and grow an overall business, a business case tackles one problem at a time. It’s essential if you want to create a tangible plan for your next project. Here’s how it works.
What is a business case?
A business case is a project you’ll assemble for identifying, addressing, and solving a specific business problem.
The key to a business case is the change it creates in your business. Developing a business case starts with identifying a problem that needs a permanent solution. Without that lasting change, a business case is only an observation about what’s going wrong. A complete business case addresses how a company can alter its strategy to fix that problem.
Front-to-back, a business case is a complete story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It typically looks like this:
- Beginning: Someone identifies a problem within the business and presents the business case to the key decision-makers.
- Middle: With the project go-ahead, the company launches an internal team to address the business case and deliver results.
- End: The team delivers a presentation on the changes made and their long-term effects.
Maybe it’s not as compelling a story as Cinderella or Hamlet. Still, every business case has the same basic ingredients.
So, what’s the simple answer to “What is a business case?” It’s the story of a problem that needs solving.
Examples of business cases
The problem for many companies is that they can turn a blind eye to challenges that are right in front of their faces. This is even the case when the company has a compelling product to sell.
Consider the example of Febreze. In the mid-1990s, a researcher at Procter & Gamble was working with hydroxypropyl beta-cyclodextrin. His wife noticed that his clothes no longer smelled like cigarettes, which was a frequent complaint.
P&G had something of a miracle product on its hands. However, their approach was wrong. They initially marketed Febreze as a way to eliminate embarrassing smells. Predictably, the product flopped.
But P&G stuck at it. They had a potential business case on their hands: a highly marketable product proved difficult to market. What was going wrong? Working the business case from beginning to end might provide the answer.
After some focus group testing, P&G found out that few consumers recognized the nasty odors they were used to. Instead, they learned to use a different business case for Febreze: it was a cleaning product now, a way to make the house smell nice when the floors are vacuumed and the counters are wiped clean. They gave it its own pleasant smell and fashioned it into a cleaning product. And because it worked so well, so did the campaign.
That’s an example of a business case overall. But let’s get specific: developing a business case is easier when you have a template to look at. Let’s build an example using a made-up company, ABC Widgets, and a hypothetical business case. Let’s call our business case example “Operation Super Widgets”:
Business Case: ABC Widgets
Section 1: Summary
Briefly describe the problem and the opportunities.
ABC Widgets’ latest widget, the Super Widget, is suffering from supply issues, requiring higher shipping costs to procure the necessary resources, and eating into profits. We need to switch to a new supplier to restore the viability of the Super Widget.
Section 2: Project Scope
This section should include the following:
- Financial appraisal of the situation. Super Widgets are now 20% more expensive to produce than in the year prior, resulting in -1% profits with each Super Widget sold.
- Business objectives. To get revenues back up, we need to restore profit margins on Cost Per Unit Sold for every Super Widget back to 2020 levels.
Benefits/limitations. Restoring Cost Per Unit Sold will restore 5% of sagging revenues. However, we are limited to three choices for new Super Widget suppliers.
- Scope and impact. We will need to involve supply chain managers and Super Widget project management teams, which may temporarily reduce the number of widgets we’re able to produce, potentially resulting in $25,000 in lost revenue.
- Plan. Project Management Teams A and B will take the next two weeks to get quotes from suppliers and select one while integrating an immediate plan to bring in new Super Widget parts for manufacturing within four weeks.
- Organization. Team Member Sarah will take the lead on Operation Super Widget Profit. Both teams will report to Sarah.
This is a bare-bones example of what a business case might look like, but it does hit on the key points: what’s the problem, how can you fix it, what’s the plan to fix it, and what will happen if you succeed?
How do you write and develop a business case?
When writing your own business case, the above example is a good guide to follow as you get started with the basics.
But, once you’re more familiar with the nuts and bolts, it’s also worth being prepared for some potential roadblocks you could face along the way.
Challenges of writing a good business case
Why don’t more companies create a business case? It might come down to a lack of good communication. Many people don’t even know how to write a business case, let alone present one.
“The idea may be great, but if it’s not communicated well, it won’t get any traction,” said Nancy Duarte, communication and author who wrote The HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations.
The key challenge, notes Duarte, is taking abstract business concepts (like lagging numbers) and turning them into an immediately recognizable problem. After all, if a company already had perfect awareness that it was making a mistake, it likely would find a way to stop the error in its tracks.
A business case is challenging because it usually means you’ll have to persuade someone that change is needed. And change can be difficult. In a thriving business, it’s especially problematic because it’s easy to point to the bottom line and say that whatever the company is doing is already working.
How do you present a business case?
The tips and examples above give you some nice remedies for creating a business case without the typical problems. But you’ll still want to present a business case with the straightforward proposals and numbers you’d associate with any new project.
Essentially, it all comes down to how well your business case can persuade the decision-makers. That’s why you shouldn’t just build a case off of raw numbers. The bottom line might be a compelling argument, but it’s not always what “clicks.”
If you’re presenting a business case, you’re a salesperson. And not every sale is a matter of precise logic. It’s also about emotion—the story of why something’s gone wrong and what needs doing if you’re going to overcome it.
The art of a good business case is the art of persuasion. Keep these specific points in mind as you craft one of your own:
- Point to an example of a bad business case and liken it to the present case. No one likes the idea of watching themselves walk into a mistake. Presenting an example of a business that made the same mistake your company is making and then translating it into the present moment is a compelling way to craft a business case that makes ears perk up.
- Build a narrative. Nancy Duarte pointed out that in one business case, a client convinced a CEO to follow through with a project by using simple illustrations. It’s not that the idea of adding illustrations to the business case was so great. It’s that the illustrations were able to tell a compelling story about why the case needed to go through.
- Distill the idea into an elevator pitch. Try this exercise: get your business case down to one sentence. If you can’t explain it any more simply than that, your business case might not be as memorable as it needs to be to sway decision-makers.
- Use analogies to drive the point home. Let’s say you discovered a problem in a growing business. Overall, revenues are good — but you’ve noticed an associated cost that has the potential to explode in the future and tank the business. But it’s not compelling to use dollars and cents when the business is doing so well. Instead, consider introducing the business case with a simple analogy: “Without repair, every leaky boat eventually sinks.” You now have their attention. Use the numbers to drive the point home, but not to make the point.
If you’re presenting a business case to decision-makers, remember that it’s not only the logic of your argument that will convince people — it’s how persuasive you can be.
Business case checklist
Before you can check “learn how to write a business case” off your list, you have to know the essentials. Make sure you include the following elements in your business case checklist (and, of course, your business case itself):
- Reasons. This should be the most compelling part of your business case. You can tell a story here. And the most compelling stories start with a loss or a complication of some sort. What is the threat to the business that needs remedy? What are the reasons for moving forward?
- Potential courses of action. It’s not a complete story until we know the next chapter. A business case isn’t just about the problem — it’s about rectifying a problem through the solution. Recommend a few specific courses of action to help spur discussion about what to do next.
- Risks and benefits. Not every solution is going to be perfectly clean. There are going to be solutions with downsides. There are going to be costs along with the benefits. Make sure to include each of these to give a clear and complete picture. This is the time to manage expectations — but also the time to inspire action.
- Cost. What’s it going to cost to complete the project? The people making the decisions need to know the bottom line figure to assess which business cases to prioritize.
- Timeline. A good project isn’t only measured in dollars but in days, weeks, and months. What is the expected timeline for the business case? How quickly can the problem meet its solution?
With every business case, specificity is key. A vague timeline won’t help — a timeline with specific weekly milestones looks more achievable. To make your business case more compelling, always look for the specific details that tie your story together.
How to write a business case with Wrike
Wrike’s project management software can step in and turn a business case from the seedling of an idea to a full-fledged initiative. Here are some tips for establishing a business case using Wrike’s features:
- Start with a business case Kanban board. This will be especially useful if you’re working with a team that will present the business case to leadership. With a Kanban board, you can get on the same page, track what needs to be done, and assign individual segments of the case to each user.
- Gather information. Don’t decide on your story just yet. Look at the information behind the business case and figure out what the most compelling story is.
- Don’t forget the timeline. Any project worth its salt needs a timeline; if nothing else, then to use it as a yardstick for tracking progress. Poke around with a project schedule template to estimate the timeline of the business case.
- Create a project charter. A project charter is a document that contains all sorts of overlapping information with the initial details of the business case. Reasons for the project, project limitations, stakeholders, and decision-makers — all the key points are there. Don’t simply open a text editor and get to work. Build a project charter that takes the business case into an actionable blueprint for success.
When a CEO gives the go-ahead for a business case, it becomes a project. Enter project management software. From here, a team can take on the business case and coordinate seamlessly with each other to meet the goals set in the project charter.
Ultimately, learning how to write a business case is learning how to write a complete story. It’s not just a suggestion for the future. It’s also a report of what you did to change the business for the better. With effective project management software in place, you can see your business case through to a successful ending.
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