In my last blog, 6 essential elements for a winning business case, I talked about the essential elements of a business case, in effect describing a generic outline, which can be used for a variety of business cases. Many readers chose to download a business case template from our website.

But where do you start with a business case? A decade ago, a friend described to me to a “business” concept he called “a big hairy monkey.” Imagine that you’re in a meeting, and an issue is brought up that needs to be dealt with, but it’s conveniently ignored and when the meeting is over and everyone leaves the room, you turn your head and there is this big hairy monkey sitting there on the boardroom table staring at you. And until it’s taken care of, it will just sit there and stare, and drive you crazy.

Developing a business case may prove to be a big hairy monkey too if you’re not sure how to deal with it, but fear not! Here’s how to get started in no time, whether you’re going to write it up or present it in a conversation.

Right off the bat, you need to ask and answer two questions. First, you need to establish what kind of a decision the case is needed for. Second, you need to determine who the decision makers are. Once you know the answer to both, you’ll be in a position to start putting together a convincing argument.

What’s on the table?

The impetus for a business case usually comes from one of the following two scenarios:

  1. Known opportunity or need, such as:
    1. A mandatory requirement, such as new legislation, industry regulation, new tax reporting requirement, and so on. Most memorable examples include Sarbanes-Oxley and Basel, but there are scores of smaller mandatory changes that companies have to deal with all the time.
    2. A problem of any size that needs correcting, such as weak revenue, inefficient distribution chain, poor customer service, slow application, or leaking roof.
    3. A business opportunity, such as a generation of additional revenue, entry into new markets, launching new products or services, improvements to business processes, cost savings, or efficient leveraging of technology.
  2. Known solution, unclear application. These include all sorts of bright ideas generated internally or externally, which if implemented, intuitively, would produce some value, but the exact mode of application and other pertinent considerations are not yet clear.

If you’re coming up with a solution to an opportunity or need (Scenario 1), then your next steps are as follows:

  1. Understand the issue well. What is it and what is the business impact? How did it come about? Has it been dealt with in the past?
  2. Develop solution alternatives. How can it be addressed? Look for diverse solutions that are not necessarily all technologically exciting. The best ones are often blazingly simple. Come up with a few good options.
  3. Identify the preferred alternative. Which one do you recommend? To do so effectively, your selection criteria should be congruent with the one that the decision makers will use. In short, you will look at such attributes as costs and benefits, strategic value, fit with the company’s vision, and so on.

Who will make the call?

“Know your audience” is not just a bromide. Different people make decisions differently, according to their beliefs and values determined by education, experience, background, priorities and biases. Outsiders will usually require more background information to appreciate the problem and the solution fully, than insiders. A CFO may pay a lot of attention to financial projections, and the CEO to the strategic fit. Someone with prior experience in project management may pay a lot of attention to implementation planning.

Consider for instance the following example: You’re writing a business case that advocates entry into a new market. If an internal marketing guru is the decision maker, she would want to know a lot about your market and consumer trend analysis, why you think the product is right and why now. The CFO will probe your assumptions on future earnings, accuracy of projected costs, and other such things. If you’re seeking financing for this project from a third party, you will have to tell them a whole lot more about the state of your company today, what’s been done in the past and what’s happening in the marketplace. How much more, that’s impossible to tell.

Know your audience. Once you know who makes the call, you’ll know what to tell them, in what language and at what level of detail.

To sum up, here are some key considerations:

  • Decision makers outside of the company may require more background information than insiders, in the way of financial information, historical perspective, industry review, and so on. You have to find out how much they need.
  • Some people operate on a high level of concepts, while others tend to pay attention to minute details.
  • Be aware that the jargon and acronyms, while perfectly understood within your department or organization may be confusing to outsiders. Sometimes, even such simple terms as “worksheet,” “client,” “workload,” or “revenue” may have completely different meaning to those not familiar with your terminology and processes.
  • Try to learn as much as possible about the decision makers and their real concerns, priorities, habits and so on, to structure the argument accordingly. Try to put yourself in their shoes. What argument would convince you? What information do you require to make the decision?
  • If possible, test the waters early. Try to bounce a couple of ideas off the decision makers and watch the reaction.
  • Make the audience “own” the supporting data. For instance, if the CFO is in the audience, involve her people in the economic analysis or get them to provide you some base numbers for the model. This way, it would be difficult for her to question your projections (assuming they are done right).

This should put you to a good start. And I hope the big hairy monkey is now gone.

Ilya Bogorad is the Principal of Bizvortex Consulting Group Inc, a management consulting company located in Toronto, Canada. Ilya can be reached at or (905) 278 4753