Category Archives: Business Cases

The Case Against The Business Case

Note: This is part of 1 of a two-part series. Read part 2 here.

I have a confession to share.

I don’t like business cases.

At least, I don’t like the traditional way I’ve been taught to prepare a business case.

The conventional approach to pursuing a new product idea in an organization is to first prepare a business case. This is what we’ve always been told.

It’s what we’re taught in business school.

There are even competitions organized around it.

And it’s been reinforced every time we need IT and implementation resources for a new idea — the only way I could get those resources was by having a business case.

And this usually meant writing a big document, preparing a multi-slided presentation, or filling out some cumbersome form.

Now, I’ve written many business cases in my career. Some good, some excellent, many bad ones. Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at it.

But every time I did it, I hated it.

Here are just three reasons:

1. I always felt it was a time consuming exercise in guesswork.

For example, I’d be asked to estimate (guestimate?) market size and put multi-year financial projections. This is an exercise in future prediction. Something we’re not good at. No one is. I’m certainly not.

2. No one reads it.

People are busy. They don’t have time. Most want the elevator pitch.

I can’t count how many pitches I’ve been in where the execs flip to the end or simply ask you for the bottom line: what’s the opportunity, how much do you need, why do you need it, when do we see return. 60 seconds. Go.

This means a business case is nothing more than a 20, 50, or 100-page paperweight. Steven Blank famously called a business plan “a document investors make you write that they don’t read.” The same could be said for the traditional business case:

“A business case is a document executives make you write that they don’t read.”

3. Selling the business case is hard.

This is especially true in larger organizations. Lots of opinions. Lots of approvals. Competing agendas.

So ensuring internal stakeholder alignment and support is a big challenge. Lack of stakeholder support can be the biggest impediment to your product idea.

It’s important to capture and address stakeholder concerns as early as possible to ensure continued buy-in, and that everyone is on the same page. This is time consuming.

Part of that has to do with the realities of coordinating schedules. But also I’ve found this experience to be very ad hoc and messy. There has to be a better way.

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Now, maybe the way I’ve gone about creating and selling my business cases has been wrong. Maybe my situation is unique. Maybe others don’t find this process so wasteful. Maybe they’re more brilliant than I am in creating awesome business cases that always get approved. Maybe they work in organizations that have streamlined the process to pursue a new product idea.

Maybe I could test that hypothesis.

So I did.

I set about to find out what other product management folks’ experiences have been with the traditional business case process.

Over a three week period, I spoke with over 24 product professionals in companies across a range of industries, from small 50-person companies to Fortune 100 organizations.

All had experienced preparing and selling a business case for a new product idea. They had an average of 7 years PM experience, and had titles ranging from Product Manager to VP of Product Management.

Business Case Interview Map

Here’s what I found out.

Getting buy-in was rated as the #1 problem by every person except one. And that person rated it as a very close #2.

75% of them validated that maintaining stakeholder support and alignment is important, but a real challenge. Only 3 out of 8 pursed doing this in any kind of systematic manner. Most agreed it was pretty ad hoc.

Furthermore, creating the business case was acknowledged as time consuming, and a “necessary evil”.

Necessary evil? Whoa.

When I probed deeper into their feelings about the actual act of preparing a business case, I uncovered an outpouring of vitriolic frustration.

Here’s what some of them had to say:

  • “It’s a necessary evil. But it’s a wasteful process.”
  • “It’s a joke.”
  • “It’s just a lifeless Powerpoint deck.”
  • “It’s a manager fighting with an Excel spreadsheet for a month.”
  • “I’m forced to project revenues out of thin air. Putting revenue projections is a nonsensical exercise.”
  • “Financial analysis – it’s really just pretend.”

“Lifeless”. “Nonsensical.” “Pretend.” “A joke.”.

“Evil.”

Ouch.

And my favorite comment:

“You are describing my life!”

Yikes.

I feel safe to say this feedback clearly validated my entire hypothesis.

So what’s the solution?

This is not so easy to answer.

It seems to me we need a different way to pursue new product opportunities within our organizations.

One that will provide a systematic process to create validated business cases.

And one that provides us with tools and resources needed to obtain that validation.

One that will enable us to more systematically build and maintain critical internal support.

And one that allows us to spend more time with customers testing and developing product ideas than writing paperweights, while also providing an effective means to communicate progress internally for continued engagement, feedback and buy-in.

What has your experience been with business cases? How have you pursued a new product idea in your organization? Please share your frustrations or joys in the comments below!

Read part 2 here.

How I Sold A $1M Business Case For A Non-Revenue Product

biz-proposal-2Pitching a business case for any new product idea is a challenge. Pitching one for a non-revenue generating idea is even harder. A few years ago, I did exactly that, involving the small matter of an ask a little south of $1 million.

At the time, the product was being positioned as a customer benefit and a strategic differentiator for the company. Although the potential for driving revenue was there in the long-term existed, the immediate ROI was operational efficiency. The problem was it was going to cost a lot to do right. (Yes, we were waterfall, but that’s another matter.)

I still remember the day we pitched the business case. Up until the day before, I was crazy nervous. I mean, who approves close to a $1 million funding request for something that has no promise of revenue? Sounds crazy! We had 30 mins to present our case. I must have practiced my presentation a hundred times in the days prior to the meeting with the executive committee.

In the end, our ask was approved within two hours of our presentation. It was amazing. Several folks who had been at the company for many years told me they had never heard of any proposal – even one with revenue attached – being approved so quickly. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but I’ll admit – it felt real good!

As I reflected on the reasons for the success of that business proposal pitch, the lessons learned from that experience are captured in a famous Sun Tzu quote:

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

I learned that in order to sell any proposal there are a number of pieces that need to be in an advantageous position prior to your actual pitch. The business case itself is, of course, a key asset. But it’s just as important to consider the market, company culture and human factors that can have a decisive effect on the success of any proposal. Here are the pieces I put into place to increase my odds of success:

A robust business case. Of course, it starts with this. Although, at the time, I wasn’t aware of tools like the Business Model Canvas or Lean Canvas, I did make sure my proposal contained all the necessary components. This can be a blog post in itself, but briefly: clear articulation of the customer problems, business challenge and proposed solution; fit with existing corporate strategy; critical resources needed; a financial analysis showing historical spending and benefits derived thus far (which, by the way, was not much), the investment ask and ROI; and the impact of pursuing the investment vs. not doing so.

Customer validation. We knew our chief problem was a poor user experience. But we had to make the case that it was beyond just “fixing a few broken links and prettying up the fonts”. To do that, we conducted a usability study to test three key customer hypotheses around validating the premise of our solution, the user experience, and the business model. For each hypothesis, we defined our success criteria to validate our assumptions. As we had predicted, while customers validated the premise of our solution, they overwhelmingly trashed the UX and completely invalidated our business model hypothesis.

We had video taped the entire study. So I cut a 90-second video montage to play to the execs that ended with what I called the Money Quote: “If this is the experience, then next time I see it offered to someone, I’m going to warn them, ‘Don’t buy it, because it sucks!'”

Fit with the corporate business strategy. I’ve talked about the importance of Opportunity/Company Fit for a product idea here.

A coalition of the willing. I knew there were others in the organization who felt my pain, and some who were more interested in trashing the product. I wanted to convert sympathizers into supporters and either minimize the detractors or at least be in a position to address their concerns. The goal here was to make sure that by the time I approached the execs, they knew there was organizational support behind the product. I also wanted them to know I had done the legwork to capture and address any concerns from those who remained unsupportive (especially the vocal ones).

“Earlyvangelists”. As early as possible, I began to meet with key members of senior and executive management to try to get their buy-in and early feedback. This allowed me to gather early insights into potential challenges, the things the C-suite in particular care about, any political concerns to ensure support from these stakeholders, and gain internal “earlyvangelists”. This word was coined by Steve Blank to define “a special breed of customers willing to take a risk on your startup’s products or service because they can actually envision its potential to solve a critical and immediate problem.” In my case, I was looking for those internal folks who could envision my proposal helping to solve a critical problem they were facing in their own agendas.

Influence Map

From MindTools.com: “Uncovering where the power lies in your projects”

Empowering others to pre-sell for me. Those early conversations helped me identify an “influence map” that depicted how organizational relationships worked top-down. For each member of the executive committee I identified the folks whose opinions he or she valued the most. If I had a direct relationship with this person, great. If not, I’d go down to the next degree. I then presented my proposal to these folks to get them on my side, tailoring my presentation to my audience. Once done, I’d ask the person for feedback on how to get the executive’s buy-in. This would empower them to pre-sell my idea to the exec in conversations that I would not be a part of.

A scorecard of who’s in vs. who’s not yet. I converted my influence map into a scorecard where I tracked who was on board vs. who wasn’t, and for the latter, what their concerns were and my next steps to address them.

A presentation that fit with the culture. How the presentation is prepared is just as important as the business case itself. I’ve worked at a company that had little appetite for decks: the rule was never more than 5 slides. I worked at another company where meetings would not be able to take place without a Powerpoint deck: 20-page, even 60-page, presentations were the norm.

Iterate the business case. As I gained feedback and insights from the above activities, I followed a Build-Measure-Learn cycle for creating the proposal itself, continually tweaking and re-testing it before it was show time ready.

Great mentors/advisors. This can also be a blog post by itself. Having solid mentors and advisors are so essential. I made sure to look beyond my immediate manager and his manager. For example, I built a relationship with a senior manager in Finance to get his feedback on my financial analysis. He had nothing to do with my proposal or product, but his feedback helped strengthen my financial model, and since he was closer to some of the senior executives who were close to the CFO, I gained insights into the the things important to them.

All this is not to say you can’t sell a business case or proposal on the strength of the content alone and (if you’re so lucky) personal charm. Certainly, there are situations where that’s all you have to rely on. But when possible, it’s important to spend the time upfront planning, strategizing and creating coalitions  If you do so, odds are you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how swimmingly the actual pitch goes. In other words, win the battle before it’s actually fought.

Before Product/Market Fit comes Opportunity/Company Fit

In his book, Running Lean, Ash Maurya presents a workflow for taking a product from idea to launch to Product/Market fit.

Ash Maurya workflow
In the Problem/Solution Fit stage, you are trying to answer the question, “Do you have a problem worth solving?” Ash breaks this down further into three questions:

  • Is the problem something customers want solved? (must-have)
  • Can it be solved? (feasibility)
  • Will they pay for it? If not, who will? (viability)

Problem/Solution Fit is pursued by capturing your business model hypothesis and then doing Customer Discovery via problem interviews and solutions interviews with customers. Once you’ve validated from customers that you have a viable problem worth solving, you move into Product/Launch Fit.

In the Product/Launch Fit stage, you are trying to answer the question, “Are you ready to learn from customers?” Key activities pursued here are reducing down your MVP, getting to Release 1.0, defining your key metrics, and continuous deployment. The purpose here is to lay the critical groundwork to maximize speed and learning for future iterations, and to establish “just enough” traction among customers to support learning.

Finally, in pursuing Product/Market Fit you are trying to answer the ultimate question: “Have you built something customers want?” This is where the rubber hits the road, and you’re validating your complete product. Identifying the “right” metric or set of metrics, prioritizing your feature backlog, and ensuring retention and getting paid are critical to the success of achieving product/market fit.

This Lean Startup workflow is one that could be used by a product manager pursuing a new product idea or looking to introduce an existing product into a new market. After all, the product manager in such a situation must be able to answer the same set of questions about who is the customer, what customer problem is the product trying to solve, and will enough customers care enough to pay for the solution. The product manager typically starts with some sort of informed hypotheses to answer these questions, which form the basis of the product vision. And the product manager must stay in close touch with customers to validate whether the product is truly something they want.

I feel there is one critical step missing in this workflow, though. It has to do with the unique situation product managers find themselves in versus entrepreneurs. Whereas an entrepreneur is trying to discover a business model that works, a product manager is typically an employee in an existing company already executing a repeatable and scalable business model. As such, the new product idea being pursued by the product manager could represent a change to the company’s existing business model. As such, because of the potential impact on the company’s existing business model, a critical consideration for the product manager pursuing a new product is whether the new product is aligned with the company’s corporate strategy.

In his book, Product Leadership: Creating and Launching Superior New Products, author Robert G. Cooper talks about the need for new product development efforts to be closely linked to the overall business strategy. In Beyond the Core, Chris Zook makes the case that the further a new product or business idea is from the core business — what he calls an “adjacency move” — the riskier it is and more prone to failure. What this means is that the more closely aligned the new product idea is to the company’s existing business strategy, the more favorably it will be looked upon by the company’s executives. This does not mean something completely outside of a company’s existing core will never be approved. But it does mean the bar to get that buy-in is much higher.

So in order for the new product idea to garner the necessary stakeholder support, its business case must be able to articulate the business opportunity it presents to the company, how it fits (or departs) from the company’s current business model and strategy, and the risks associated with pursuing it.

As such, Ash’s workflow can be modified as follows:

opportunity-company-fit

I call this stage Opportunity/Company Fit.

Critical questions for the product manager to figure out are:

  • Does the idea align with the company’s strategic goals?
  • Who do I have to convince to get buy-in?
  • Can I get a sponsor? Who?

Just like with using customer validation to achieve Problem/Solution Fit, I’m sure it’s possible to use lean principles to achieve Opportunity/Company Fit.

A successful business case is not about the analysis

You’ve worked hard to prepare an air tight business case for that new product idea or that additional investment your current product needs to take it to the next level. You’ve clearly quantified the opportunity, identified the product solution, crafted the marketing strategy, thought through all possible risks and mitigation strategies, validated all assumptions, analyzed the investment requirements, and have developed a robust, stress-tested ROI model. You’ve vetted the business case with your boss and his or her boss as well. You’ve even practiced your presentation in front of the mirror. Despite some understandable anxiety, you’re feeling confident. You’re ready.

But your presentation ends in disaster. Your business case, while solid, falls flat. The execs either trash it completely, or worse, end up making no decision at all leaving you in limbo with no direction whatsoever. What happened? What did you miss?

In a nutshell, the people factor. When I started out, I thought if I had a well thought out presentation backed by solid analysis, that would be enough. After all, that’s what they taught us in business school, and it’s what the experts tell us we should all be doing. Good enough, right? Wrong. What I learned in the real world is that at the end of the day business runs on people, and you need to get people on your side if you want buy-in for your ideas and proposals. Yes, your analysis and recommendations have to be solid – that’s a given. But if number crunching and logic were all it took to convince people, this would probably be a very different world.

I learned that “pre-selling” ideas are critical to getting buy-in for my proposals, be they from execs or even among peers. And to do this, understanding “trust networks” is critical. This means figuring out who trusts whom, who has credibility with which folks, and understanding the personalities involved – what are their motivators, concerns, agendas. And the larger the organization and the more layers between you and those whose approval you seek, frankly, the more intricate the trust networks and the more “pre-selling” you will have to do.

The goal here is two-fold. For one, you can identify potential concerns and challenges early, and so be prepared to address them during the formal pitch. Second, in a ideal situation, everyone is already pre-sold on your proposal, so the meeting is really more of a formality with everyone at the table prediposed to nodding their agreement.

It’s tough work, and it requires its own special planning. But if done right, it can make your actual formal presentation go a whole lot smoother.