On Tuesday, you get asked to produce a business case by Friday for a topic you aren’t the expert on.
I got asked how I’d approach that situation yesterday afternoon and tackled it with the same sort of constraints — four hours this morning to prepare, draft, revise, and share. After all, we need to practice how to produce good work quickly.
I thought about how I help my clients solve these challenges to share with you here.
I broke this down into three different sections:
- What is a business case?
- How to build a business case quickly
- What to do when you aren’t the expert
When pressed for time, this approach brings a lot of clarity in an hour or less. Clarity breeds confidence and allows you to build a good business case faster.
With no time to waste, let’s get to it.
What is a good business case?
A business case is the justification for solving a business problem. Explain the plan to solve a business problem to create value.
Done right, your business case is a proper value proposition: a promise to solve a business problem in a way that creates value.
This is important because it helps us cut through the noise and offers us the structure we need to build an excellent case.
We need to prioritize solving the right problems to deliver the most value. At a basic level, solving problems that help the business survive or allow the business to thrive are priorities.
A good business case presents and clarifies the information needed to make better decisions on which problems to solve and how to approach them in your environment. Your situation often dictates what you include and how you present your case, but you must clearly explain:
- What problem we’re trying to solve
- Why we need to solve this problem now
- How we propose to solve this problem
What matters most is clarity, especially on the problem to solve, what success looks like, and the expected value. When teams get confused here, the entire project suffers.
How do you rapidly build a business case?
We often need to build a business case when we’re already tired, low on energy and short on time. We have pressure to get it done ASAP, often as an urgent request.
Instead of spinning your wheels, rely on structure to reveal substance.
But first, take a breath and consider some key details to frame your approach:
- What is the purpose of this business case? Are you building the case to decide or supporting the already-decided direction?
- Who is the primary audience?
- When is the business case due?
- How much time do you have to work on it?
- What is the ultimate form – written document, presentation, slides without presentation, or just a discussion?
Consider the norms and expectations of your environment to frame your approach. Figure out what you need to do and where you have discretion. Mostly nail down when the case is due and when you can get to work.
Ignore the templates and follow this advice to move faster
Despite best intentions, just opening and plopping ideas into a template or slide deck never produces the crisp results we need. Worse, you’ll end up wasting time and creating re-work that is simpler to avoid.
Following a structured approach to organize your thinking — independent of the final format — is the secret to success.
You need to organize and clarify your own thinking when in a hurry.
The questions I shared here are my go-to prompts for helping clients. I use them and variations every day. Each has more layers we could explore with more time. Right now, we need to get the business case built quickly.
Once you have all the details, it’s relatively easy to present the information in the required format. It saves a lot of time if you need to use multiple formats and support your work later.
Quickly work through the three basic structures I share below that offer a combined 13 questions. Most folks can answer each high-level question in 3-5 minutes (and sometimes quicker).
If possible, pull out a pen and paper, get to the whiteboard, or otherwise make the hand-to-brain connection. Otherwise, just make sure you get the answers out of your head and on paper.
Step 1: Value Proposition Conversation Starter
Our business case is a value proposition. A lot of folks struggle with value propositions, and I’ve found these 5 questions help get the conversation started.
- What problem are we trying to solve?
- What are the costs and consequences?
- What are the ideal and acceptable outcomes?
- What is our approach?
- What is our best next step?
Costs and consequences allow us to capture the pain of the current situation and better understand what’s at stake if we don’t solve this problem. No need to get dramatic when answering, just capture what you can.
I used to focus on describing just the ideal outcome, only to learn it is too limiting. Instead, we need to explain the acceptable and ideal outcomes, allowing a range of solutions and a more accurate understanding of success. It is helpful to explain what happens because of solving the problem and how this creates value.
Use the first three to get clarity on the problem, what success looks like, and expected value. Then explore the approach. Do not limit yourself to a single solution and consider if it makes sense to offer options or choices.
Always wrap up with the best next step – which might include a demonstration or small series of tests to inform decisions.
Step 2: Ask why three ways
Why is a powerful question, and here are three different why questions to answer:
- Why change?
- Why now?
- Why us?
Solving problems often drives change from the status quo. If we’re going to embark on change, explore the timing to check if it makes sense to act now. Then candidly assess why you need to drive the change. Or if you plan on using a vendor or partner, why they are the right team to help?
Step 3: Use Straight Talk to Solve the Right Problem
This is what some folks might recognize as the second version of the Straight Talk Framework. As I’ve expanded the framework, this is now how we identity the right problems to solve.
You’ll note some overlap in the questions. This is intentional to help shift your perspective and clarify your thinking. DO NOT cut-and-paste answers from above. Give yourself some credit and see what you come up with when answering it again in a different sequence.
- What problem are you trying to solve?
- What is the value of solving the problem?
- What is the impact of the solution?
- How do we measure success?
- Are we ready?
The first two answers form an accurate summary of the value proposition from above. Then consider the impact of the approach or solution. Impact is a measure of friction and whether you think it will increase, decrease or have no impact on friction.
A lot of well-intentioned business cases didn’t consider the impact and ended up slowly grinding to a halt. They get a lot more complex, time-consuming, and expensive to fix, too.
On the flip side, if your approach reduces friction, you might end up multiplying the value — and that’s important to point out.
Measuring success is often tricky, but necessary. Minimally, think about how someone affected by the effort would see and recognize a successful outcome. Then figure out how to measure that.
End the sequence by exploring if we’re ready – and how you know.
You can build the bulk of your case in an hour (or less)
If you breezed through the 13 questions at 3-5 minutes each, you can easily get what you need to build a good business case in under an hour.
The goal is building a good business case quickly. The key to good is clarity and answering the right questions. If the stakes are higher, it often takes longer or requires more questions and answers. It all takes time.
When you don’t have time to waste, you can get a lot figured out and clarified in an hour.
What do you do if you aren’t the expert?
Sometimes you get tasks with creating the business case, but lack the expertise needed to address the solution. In that case, you need to get the right answers with enough clarity to complete the business case without delay.
Here’s how I do it.
Diagnose what you know and what you need to find out
Use the structure of the 13 questions to diagnose what you know and where you need help. Skip over the parts you know in favor of focusing on what you need to know. Use the prompts to guide your next steps.
What does the audience need to know to make a better decision?
Based on what you don’t know (yet), consider what the audience needs to know to make a better decision. That narrows your focus and helps identify the experts and resources who can answer the specific questions.
Getting specific saves a lot of time and hassle later.
Now this gets kind of tricky when searching for information outside of your comfort zone. Check multiple sources with an eye on trends and divergent information. You might even get lucky with an example or story that matches your situation. The search might be the key step in learning what to ask others for help with.
Show your work and invite contribution (and clarity)
One of the best ways to ask for help and invite contribution is to show your work. Write what you know, what you need to find out, and then sketch it out as best you can.
Offer that as a starting point when you ask for help, and then learn from the collaboration. Pay attention to the words and look for ways to confirm your understanding — and how to explain clearly to your audience.
If you don’t have in-house expertise, consider who you know in the industry that can spare a few minutes to help. Maybe you can ask a partner or supplier to help. I know this gets tricky, but most people are happy to help, especially if you make a clear, concise request for help.
The key to building a good business case is avoiding jargon, especially when you are not comfortable with the topic. Do your best to detail what you can, share what you learned, and show your confidence with the approach.
Candor is refreshing and prevents future problems.
Putting it all together
The best thing you can do is seek clarity. Most overlook the power of preparation and the power of using structure to reveal substance. You can gain a lot of clarity in an hour or less, and it’ll make all the difference.
Under pressure, an effort like this might break down into:
- One hour to prepare and answer the prompts
- One hour to diagnose and find answers
- One hour to review, draft, and revise
- One hour to complete and craft the final presentation
Figure it’ll take at least 3 hours, and most can build a reasonable case in under 5. Every situation is different. That may seem like more time than you have. In that case, do the best you can with the time you have.
Follow this approach and you’ll do better in less time.
Above all, focus on clarifying the problem you’re trying to solve, why solve it now, and how you’ll approach it to help others make the best decision possible.