Does crafting a compelling business case make your palms sweaty? You’re not alone.
Creating a business case — a project management document enlisting the benefits vs. costs of executing a project — can feel daunting.
What should you include? What makes the document boring? How can you make your case convincing? Argh. It’s jaw-clenching. 😬
And yet, knowing how to present your argument well is critical to get buy-in from stakeholders. Instead of looking at it like a nuisance you don’t want to deal with, treat it like a holy grail that decides whether or not your project gets translated into action.
In this article, I’ll tell you exactly what a business case is and offer a step-by-step process to write one that gets the green light instantly.
What is a business case?
A business case is a document you put together to highlight, address, and resolve a business problem.
Example: Let’s say you want to outsource your company’s marketing to an agency because they have more expertise, a larger team, and a freelance network.
A persuasive business case will highlight why the benefits outweigh the costs of this investment.
- Maybe you mention the problem — your marketing team is short-staffed, and you don’t have the budget to hire a full-time lead.
- Then, you highlight the proposed solutions — like hiring a freelance consultant, an agency, or an entry-level marketer.
- Lastly, you present your preferred option — working with an agency — and why it’s the most lucrative choice for the company.
Key stakeholders use this business case to decide whether or not to move forward with your initiative.
The crucial bit, especially for established enterprise companies, is shedding a spotlight on why the company should deviate from business-as-usual (BAU) and create a change instead. After all, if what the company is doing is already working, why disturb the harmony?
To continue our above example:
- When making a business case for hiring a marketing agency, call attention to why your current understaffed marketing department is unable to get results.
- Outsourcing to an agency will ensure you have the right-fit content marketing strategy that gets desired outcomes and takes some load off of your in-house team.
Your business case can take an advocacy slant — where you side with one preferred solution. Or you can also present all potential options and let the stakeholders decide for themselves based on your presentation — a more impartial approach.
A business case might sound just like creating a business plan or a project plan, but those three are different things.
How is a business case different from a business plan and a project plan?
Business case vs. business plan:
- Specific VS broad - A business case zooms in and shows why the company should pursue a specific project. On the other hand, a business plan highlights why the company should go for a completely new business.
- Level of detail - A business plan includes overall market research, goals from the business as a whole, and how you plan to achieve those aims. You might prepare a business plan for an existing business if you’re aspiring to take a significantly new direction for the company.
Business case vs. project plan:
- The Why VS the How - A business case argues why a company should proceed with a project. A project plan, on the other hand, gets into the nitty-gritty of exactly how a company will tackle an approved project.
- Path to results - While a business case does include high-level steps on how you plan to achieve your desired results, it does so on a surface level without deep diving into the specifics of each step.
Every project needs a project plan. Every new business needs a business plan. But does every single project need a business case? No.
When would you need a business case?
If you are part of a multi-million dollar company, you may not need to present a well-crafted argument for buying a $5/month tool. But there are three conditions under which you definitely do need a business case:
- When you need to get a buy-in for significant investment from stakeholders.
- When you aim to provide all possible solutions for a problem.
- When you want to outline your vision for a project.
Having a business case in place ensures you’re taking a well-thought-out, strategic approach to implementing your project.
Your proposed solution might be a no-brainer inside your head. But how do you make stakeholders see eye to eye with you? It’s all about doing your homework right.
Preliminary checks: How to write a business case that gets the green light?
Here’s a five-step process you should follow before documenting your business case to ensure you get yeses all over.
Step 1: Engage the stakeholders
Ask the people what they want.
Before you even begin crafting your pitch, you should know the problems your target audience (AKA your stakeholders) are facing. Are they looking to cut costs? Is the business’ goal to boost employee retention this financial year? Do stakeholders want to increase profits?
- If your stakeholder is external investors, speak to several C-suite executives about what issues are causing the investors the most friction.
- If the stakeholders are your team members, schedule 1:1 catch-ups and chat about what’s a time-suck activity they want to eliminate.
- If it’s your manager, ask them what’s the biggest problem they’re looking to solve.
How much time should you devote to this step? It depends on your project. If it’s a high-stakes ask, demanding a wad of money, you must spend more time reading the room. Your aim is to sniff opportunities and get super specific about the problem you’re aiming to solve.
Andy Raskin, who helps CEOs align their leadership teams around a strategic narrative, showcased a deck by Uberflip that first highlighted the status quo with all the pain points of the target audience — followed by a teaser of the results stakeholders would get if they acted on their project.
Create something similar that shows the promise of your business case. You can also use a graph and data to show your proposition is profitable — especially if your stakeholders get numbers more than stories.
Think like a journalist on the ground. The more you understand your stakeholders, the better you can craft a business case that addresses their concerns.
Step 2: Research the market
You don’t want to lead a business case and have a stakeholder point out a better alternative you missed.
Don’t go into the research with assumptions. Have an open mind and study all possible solutions for your business problem.
Why? It’s simpler to course-correct now than find a better replacement during self-editing your business case — after you’ve already spent weeks preparing it.
For example, if your business case is about investing in an expensive software to hire better staff, dive deep and know about all possible other hiring tools out there. Hunt G2, Capterra, TrustRadius, Reddit, and speak to other folks in the industry who might use these tools.
Airbnb’s pitch deck from 2008 is a good example of showing you’ve done your homework by highlighting why the rivals aren’t as big of a hit and then sharing your competitive advantage.
Marissa, Founder & President at M. Taffer Consulting, says not asking enough questions is the number one mistake you can make during research:
Step 3: Compare and shortlist various approaches you could take
Eliminate all the possible solutions that don’t fit your company. If you look at our last example, you can eliminate any tools that provide exclusively US-based folks if you’re looking to hire talent offshore.
Once you have a list of solutions that make sense for you to consider, shortlist all of them and enlist their pros and cons. For each method, think:
- a) Why would this work well for the business?
- b) Does the cost of this method justify its benefits?
- c) What could go wrong if we moved ahead with this method?
Steve from Dreamit Ventures shares a “Power Grid” you can take inspiration from to make your own competition chart and why your preferred solution is better than the alternatives.
After running this fine-toothed comb, you’ll be able to cross off even more potential solutions. Now, only a handful of options worth considering remain.
Step 4: Compile data and finalize your preferred solution
The last step is pinpointing your preferred solution. If you’ve done step three right, the choice should be easy, or there’d be a tie between a couple options.
The stakeholders should know you’ve done this homework. Compile all the data you’ve collected about the potential solutions to the business problem and convert it into a digestible form.
This could be as simple as converting your pros and cons list into a table or more complex, like presenting your data visually through graphs and pie charts.
For example, in the presentation Buffer used to raise half a million dollars, they presented a Business Model slide showing numbers with projected revenue, freemium model details, and user acquisition costs.
A business model is different from a business case, but you can use these same principles to highlight why stakeholders should move ahead with your preferred solution.
How much work you should crunch in this step depends on the specific business case, the problem you’re solving, and the size of your project.
- If it’s a small investment — like imbibing a no-meeting days policy in your company — don’t squander your hours making an aesthetic statistical representation.
- But if it’s a huge qualitative business case — such as hiring a high-ticket, successful freelance writer — schedule time in your calendar to present your case well.
You can also add a ranking criterion in your business case where you give a score between one to 10 to all possible solutions. Make the ranking system as nuanced as you wish, depending on your project.
Step 5: Document
With all the data in place and a preferred solution at hand, you’re ready to dive in and create your business case.
Is there a specific structure you should follow? Not really. Many organizations have a business case format that you can use for your project.
If there’s no such template at your company, and it’s your first rodeo at creating a business case, don’t worry. We have a handy template you can easily use and tweak to build your project business case.
What should you include in your business case? [Free template]
No two project business cases are made the same. You don’t need to provide a 50-page presentation for funding of $2,000 if your yearly revenue is in billions. The reverse is also true: You can’t write three slides if you’re trying to revamp the whole sales strategy.
Regardless, some things should be present in every business case — like an executive summary of the project, a predicted return on investment (ROI), and resources needed from the company.
I’ve listed these essentials below, along with a brief description of what you should include in each section. You can also tweak and create a personalized structure for each project. For example, if you think your risk assessment should precede the calculated ROI, feel free to make that change. There is no one ‘right’ way to make a business case.
At the end of this section, you can find a template you can copy and fill out for your own project.
An executive summary is the first section of your business case, but it’s the last thing you write. Why? Because it’s your written elevator pitch — it decides whether you pique your stakeholders’ interest or send them on a snooze fest.
If you think like a writer, this section is as important as writing a compelling introduction. In a short and snappy way, you have to present the summary of your project, its goals, and the benefits the business will derive from executing this project. Write it like an engaging hook that perks up the ears of your stakeholders.
Write a short section about the problem you’re trying to solve by implementing this project. The key thing to highlight here is how your project aligns with the overall business mission and fits into the company’s overarching goals.
Remember when you talked to stakeholders, researched solutions, compiled all the data, and finalized your proposed solution? This is the place to demonstrate all the work you’ve done and show you have a clear understanding of the problem at hand.
In this section, showcase why you recommend your preferred solution and how it's better than the alternatives in the market. The ‘solution description’ is also where you show exactly how you will bring your solution into execution and the operational resources needed for its implementation.
SWOT and risk analysis of your preferred solution
Even your preferred method might have its weaknesses. Instead of curtailing them, bring them out in the open and show what you’ll do to eradicate the weaknesses and mitigate the risks. There’s also the option to split this section into two — SWOT analysis and risk assessment — if it’s a high-stakes business case.
Stephanie Walls, an NYC metro area-based project manager with almost ten years of experience, says omitting or underplaying the risks involved with a project is the biggest mistake you can make:
Cost and benefits
Write the details of all the resources you need, whether funding or workforce, along with outlining how you plan to secure the necessary resources. Ask for help from an accountant if the balance sheet isn’t your forte. Next, deep dive into the benefits of implementing this solution and what ROI the business can hope to make from putting it into action.
Overarching project plan and timelines
Without getting into the nitty-gritty, write the tasks involved with this project and how you plan on implementing them. Also include a timeline for when you'll be able to complete this project and when you can reach certain promised milestones.
[Go to File > Make a copy > Fill in your project details].
These barebones formats will help provide a basic structure to your business case. But persuasion is more of an art than a math problem — and you don’t want to ramble and talk phooey while presenting your business case live with stakeholders staring down at you.
How can you inject some soul into a boring business case?
Best practices for creating a business case
Getting a lukewarm response to a business case you spent weeks (or even months) preparing, refining, and tightening is discouraging. Here are some handy best practices to add a little oomph to your argument:
#1: Craft a story around your business case
Data and figures are great. They prove your point is logical, well-thought, and supported by the math Gods. But they don’t “click” with people the same way stories do. Research has repeatedly proven stories to be more persuasive than statistics.
Change can be uncomfortable and fearful for stakeholders. A story tugs to the heart before it fancies the brain — helping people overcome their resistance to change.
The best part? When you become a great storyteller, you don’t just make your business case more convincing and engaging, but you also make your points more memorable. Only 5% of people remember statistics, while 63% of people remember stories, according to an experiment in Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.
#2: Scrutinize each sentence
If you want to hold the attention of your stakeholders from the beginning to the end of your presentation, ensure each sentence you have adds value to your argument. Be ruthless in deleting fluff and presenting your case in as simple words as possible.
When you’ve spent so much sweat doing market research and collecting data, it can be hard to identify what’s relevant and what’s needless overwhelming information.
Even worse: Sentences that make sense to you might go over the head of your stakeholders. Use Wordtune to make your writing clearer, concise, and clean — no matter whether you want a casual tone, a business tone, or simply shorten your sentences. It’s your magic wand to translate hard-to-read sentences into legible ones with a single click.
#3: Answer your audience’s questions in advance
A surefire way to get the stakeholders on your side is by predicting their questions and addressing their concerns before they get a chance to voice them.
For example, if the CFO might be worried about the finances, dig your hands into the accounting department and check your basics. Discuss expenses proactively and emphasize the benefits of betting on your business case.
If you have done your homework and spoken to stakeholders, this best practice is easy-peasy. You already know what’s on your audience’s mind and the issues they’re struggling with.
But they aren’t the only ones who hold the reins.
While stakeholders are the primary decision-makers, there are also decision influencers — who have a high effect on what the stakeholders think of your business case. Similarly, the people who will do the day-to-day of the project — the implementers — might also raise some problems you might have missed.
“A simple chart with influence on one axis and interest on the other works well. You then plot each stakeholder’s relative position and that shows you the level of engagement each one should get.
You then use this map to work out your engagement plan. Things to think about when planning are:
a) Are the stakeholders positive, negative, or neutral about your project?
b) Who are the biggest champions and who are the biggest detractors
c) Who is likely to be emotionally invested in the project’s outcome (positive or negative)?
d) Who is connected to who and how are they connected?”
Addressing your audience’s questions means predicting the problems of all these groups and tailoring your message for each. If your colleagues are the implementers, take their feedback on the first draft of your business case. If your manager is a decision influencer, run your business case idea by them before you start preparing it.
#4: Add visuals to splash some color to your business case
Facts and figures alone can be dry and tedious. But graphs and pie charts and video testimonials? They splash some much-needed color into your business case.
Data backs this up: When people hear or see information presented out loud, they remember 10% of it. But when the same info is armed with relevant images, people retain 65% of the data.
#5: Treat your business case like a live document
As the project gets put into action, new information arises, or fresh roadblocks occur that weren’t accounted for in the business case. The competitive landscape might shift, leading to changes in your business strategy. The predicted finances become actual costs, which might be more or less than your estimates.
The business case should be up to date on all the changes happening during execution because it’s constantly referenced during a project.
Business case: The stepping stone to a project’s success
A business case isn’t just a theoretical document — it’s a breathing file that lays the groundwork for your action plan and helps you get tangible results.
Building a solid business case doesn’t just get stakeholders' buy-in, but also gives you a crystal clear vision for your project and makes execution less daunting.
This article was co-written with Wordtune. Wordtune didn’t write the whole piece. Instead, it contributed ideas, suggested rephrasing alternatives, maintained consistency in tone, and of course - made the process much more fun for the writer.