BRM: Building the case for change

Question: How do you build a business case for projects that don’t deliver cost savings, but rather focus on providing new functionality.

The interesting thing about questions is that the one you're asked often isn't the one that the person wants you to answer. Sometimes they know this, quite often they don't. This is probably one of those situations.

Business cases can be useful things. They are an input tool to a decision, not the decision itself. Play with the numbers enough and you can make a case for almost anything. I once worked on a project where the number of impacted people was so high that the suggestion we'd save five minutes per person showed such significant savings it did more to undermine the change than support it.

Numbers tell part of the story but they don't always give you an answer.

A business case can become a crutch or an insurance policy for the person not brave enough to make a decision. Or worse, the retrospective justification for something not working out in the way you had predicted it to.

In answering this question the first thing we need to consider is the context. If you're working in an organisation that doesn't make decisions but uses business cases to grant permission to work you need to know how that game gets played.

In the absence of guidance from your organisation then the UK Government's Guide to developing the Project Business Case is a good place to start. Perhaps unusually, it doesn't just focus on how much is this going to cost.

Secondly, if you’re in a situation where there isn’t money to invest then you need to think about how you make the case to spend. This is no doubt going to be more important as our COVID-19 lockdown lifts and we try to find a way to restart the economy. The reason why money needs to be saved is key. I’m yet to experience an organisation that doesn’t have waste within its systems so there is always the opportunity to go after it.

Being forced to demonstrate how the case you're building saves money isn't necessarily a bad thing. This drives you towards a system rather than linear thinking approach. By stepping back, and as a BRM this is your speciality, you can understand how the proposed investment is going to enable the organisation not just deliver a new thing.

There will be occasions where you need to either "spend to save" or "invest for growth". The business case for doing this is less about the numbers and more about the advancement of the organisation's strategy. In these situations, the business case document falls back into the "crutch for poor decision-makers" territory. If you're in this situation then, as the BRM, it is useful to remember that you're role is not to produce the business case but to work with the business partner in doing so.

Tell a different story. Understand who does make decisions. Establish how this change will make their life better. Provide the evidence they can use to make a decision. If the new functionality is about creating new revenue then demonstrate the payback period. If the new functionality avoids obsolescence (or loss of market share) demonstrate the erosion of existing revenue.

Unfortunately, it pains me to leave on a negative, but if the organisation abdicates decision making to business cases you will need to find a way to win that game.

Finally, remember that when you have all the answers (or evidence) there is no longer a decision to be made. As a BRM your job is as much about opening up the possible future's and working to shape them as it is winning investment cases.

Written by

An experienced senior digital business leader with experience of delivering transformative change.

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