Think of your business case as your sales pitch. It’s essentially a document (which is usually combined with a presentation) that explains how your proposed initiative aligns with your boss’s overall goals, the board, stakeholders, sponsors — or whoever else it is you’re trying to secure investment and/or support from.
In a nutshell, your business case should help decision-makers scrutinize their investments and ensure the proposed project will provide value compared to alternative options. Think of it as an opportunity for you to present your initiative and show off its benefits.
Business case vs. project proposal
The term ‘business case’ is often used interchangeably with ‘project proposal.’ While they’re both tools for convincing stakeholders to invest time or resources, they are two subtly different things, each done at a different stage of the project.
A project proposal comes before the business case. It’s developed during the early stages of an initiative and focuses on your project’s vision, benefits, time and cost estimates, and impact on the organization. As with a business case, its initiation relies on the approval of stakeholders or board members.
A business case is the next stage of your sales pitch. It sets out, in more detail, the why, what, how, and whos of a project. A key difference is that, while a project proposal outlines budgets and return on investment, a business case explains financial requirements in more detail.
Some people like to do both, whereas others choose to combine them and present just one highly detailed project proposal instead. That’s absolutely fine. Your choice depends on time constraints, presenting opportunities, and the preferences of you and your investors. As with a project proposal, the initiative can’t progress until the stakeholders or investors have accepted or revised this.
Next comes a statement of work (SOW for short). This is a detailed, formal document that defines exactly what makes up a project to guarantee work is carried out according to expectations.
Finally, a project charter is a formal document setting out how the project will be managed, including assumptions, risks, scope, budgets, and timelines. It’s something you create after your business case and project proposal have been given the green light.
How to create a business case
Step 1: Understand your problem and define your opportunity
Many projects fail because there simply isn’t a need for the product or initiative. So before you begin, make sure your proposal is answering a real need. It sounds obvious, but millions of products, apps, business ventures, and projects have fallen flat because they didn’t get this first part right.
Step 2: Do your market research
Once you’ve defined a real need for your initiative, then do some market research. And do it thoroughly. Have any initiatives like yours existed before? If not, then you have a unique opportunity. If they have, then explain how yours is different. When you cite past similar-sounding ventures that failed, explain why and how yours will overcome their issues. When you cite the ones that succeeded, then, again, explain how your project will leverage their success while still differentiating itself.
Pro tip: Create a business SWOT chart to organize your thoughts and pinpoint your initiatives, strengths, and weaknesses.
And remember to research thoroughly. You don’t want to be standing up in the presentation explaining to the board that what the world really needs right now is bacon-flavored floss, only to be told it already exists. (Cue awkward silence…)
Step 3. Think of a plan B (and a plan C, D…)
Speaking of awkward silences, make sure you always, always, have a backup plan. You know those moments during a pitch or an interview when someone asks a really reasonable question, and the poor candidate doesn’t have an answer? It’s so uncomfortable. Make sure that doesn’t happen to you.
Choosing the right solution is tricky, and there are bound to be unanswered questions. It’s okay not to have a solution to every single question, but you’ll stand in better stead if you’ve shown you’ve considered these issues, rather than having the board highlight them, making you look unprepared.
The best thing to do is to have a series of alternative routes or solutions prepared, along with their respective benefits and risks, costs, and feasibility. The more you plan ahead, the more prepared you’ll look.
A good way to make sure you’ve considered every avenue is to run your proposal past your colleagues and non-work people. Your colleagues will address business-specific questions you perhaps hadn’t considered, and non-work people will ask those important questions that people working in the industry or business sometimes overlook.
Step 4: Show you’re the expert
Okay, so we told you to have backup plans and alternative routes. But that doesn’t mean you should throw them all at the board and see which one sticks. They want you to tell them what you think is best. So choose your preferred route, then rank the other options, being sure to explain why you think this is the best way to go.
Step 5: Describe your implementation plan
It’s not enough to talk the talk. Next, you’ll need to show off your practicality! This project is your baby, so if it gets the go-ahead, you’ll be the expert people turn to.
Show you’ve thought about how the initiative will look once it begins. This includes outlining your resource requests (backed up by reasons), and your plans for managing the project, including process improvement methodologies (if appropriate), and project management tools for tracking and automation.
You’ll need to show your stakeholders you’ve plotted out a clear path to achieving your goals. As we mentioned before, it’s a good idea to consider alternative routes to demonstrate your depth of understanding and diligence.
And remember, this isn’t an opportunity to look at the world through rose-tinted glasses (aka optimism bias) and lead your stakeholders into a false sense of security. Practice due diligence and talk them through the risks, as well as the opportunities. That way, when you start your project, there’ll be no nasty surprises. A successful business case demonstrates a strong vision backed up by thorough research.
Step 6: Double-check you’ve included the key components
What should your business case include? Everyone’s different, but the following list contains the key elements.
- Executive summary (aka preface)
- Contents page/slide
- Business description/mission statement
- Product or service description
- Marketing strategy
- Competitors analysis
- SWOT diagram: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats
- Implementation plan
- Operations overview (including drivers, scope, risks, benefits, and assumptions)
- Financial plan
- Conclusions and next steps
Step 7: Make it look professional
Finally, you’ll want your plan to look as neat, tidy, and professional as possible, so use the proper tools for all your data. Avoid having to mess around with weird Word formatting, and go straight for a quality app.
We’ve mentioned a few times the different types of plans and files you should have put together before you’re done putting together your business case. Keeping track of everything you find is of the utmost importance. If you need to justify a decision to a stakeholder, or even a team member later on, it’s best if you have all of your research still on hand. You know the old adage “to see is to believe?” Well, have every visual that convinced you of the best plan of action to help you convince others.
You can thank us later.
Make the details easy to understand at a glance so you can focus on wowing stakeholders with the benefits. And once you have buy-in? Invest in flexible project management software, such as Backlog, so you can track every piece of work, create a running history of every task, and make your project as smooth and successful as possible.
In fact, why keep it until the project kicks off? Use PM software to set reminders, track your tasks, and keep all your research, graphs, and plans in one cloud-based place to set your business case off on the right foot — before you’ve even stepped into the boardroom!
This post was originally published on March 21, 2019, and updated most recently on March 28, 2021.