Making the IT business case

Paul Lewis, CTO, Hitachi Data Systems Canada
Paul Lewis, CTO, Hitachi Data Systems Canada

As IT executives, our powers of persuasion are called upon in a variety of ways, from leading and inspiring the IT team to gaining buy-in for our strategy across the organization. Perhaps most importantly, we need to be at our persuasive best when it comes to winning approval for the IT business case.

Business cases often boil down to spreadsheets created by finance, which compare all projects to an established list of financial metrics. Though you may be given a few cells that will help you make your case, you really don’t have much room to manoeuvre.

But never fear. Armed with your persuasive skills and a few tricks of the trade, your IT business case presentation will stand an excellent chance of winning the day.

Countering negative opinions

Whether you’re presenting your business case to a small group or a large number of stakeholders, you can rest assured that there will be one or more people in the room who don’t share your view of things. Dissenting opinions are the rocks on which your business case can flounder, so it is imperative that you navigate around them.

How do you do that? One of the best ways to counter negative opinions is with facts — facts that are on your fingertips, ready to support your argument at the click of a mouse. For this tactic to be successful, the facts that you bring to bear on the argument must be well supported, especially by independent external sources. And they will carry extra weight if you can point to clients that are in agreement.

As the technical expert in the discussion, your view of the cost, time and resources needed to implement an IT project are not likely to be seriously challenged. But what will be subject to significant difference of opinion will be the revenue offset or potential savings. So when it comes to this financial aspect of your business case, caution is the watchword. My view is that you should be much more conservative than what you think may be reasonable.

Pointing out the risks

Business cases that lack an expense offset, for ‘Keeping The Lights On’ or maintenance projects, for example, are always the toughest to get approval on. As nothing seemingly critical is a stake, people will want to gnaw away at the funding or shift the project to the back burner. An effective way to counter this is to highlight the risk to the organization if the work is not undertaken. And don’t be bashful when it comes to detailing consequences and damage that can be done should an important system fail for an extended period; make sure others understand the potential for serious disruption of the company’s business operations and the risk of upsetting and possibly losing clients.

Similarly, when making a business case for the replacement of aging platforms, it’s important to hammer home the risks inherent in not doing so. These may include any or all of the following: lagging performance over time; loss of competitive advantage; difficulty in finding support staff; lower staff morale; difficulty in attracting young tech-savvy personnel;  inability to capitalize on new technologies such as cloud; discouragement of a climate of innovation — to name but a few.

Building consensus

When presenting to small groups, chances are good that you will be dealing with people who have equal power and share in decision making.  And that can make it easy for your business case to go off the rails. The best way to keep it on track is to get as much buy-in as possible well before the meeting takes place. Consult with stakeholders as early in the process as possible, gaining their confidence and reassuring them that you are taking their needs and concerns into consideration. Sit down with each committee member well before presentation of the business case to find out if there are any remaining issues or reservations. Address those concerns, if necessary by altering the business case, in order to get their conditional and informal consent. If you follow these steps, the business case meeting will be an easy whistle-stop on the road to success.

Presentation matters

Business cases are like people; they come in all shapes and types. Big and flabby. Lean and mean. Glitzy and glamorous. Dull and drab. Full of pizzazz.  Full of pizzas (extra gluten, hold the pizzazz).

No matter how we present ourselves personally, when it comes to the business case, presentation matters. Though presentation tools may seem a bit like window dressing, it’s worthwhile remembering that window dressing has been an important retail sales tool for centuries.

When I talk about the presentation, I don’t just mean the look and feel of your slide deck — though an eye-catching presentation is important. Your visual supporting materials also need to be succinct, compelling, to the point and written in plain business language. There should be an easy-to-follow, logical progression of your business case, put forward in the smallest number of slides that will effectively tell the story.

Perhaps most importantly, your presentation materials should underscore the real concrete benefits of the business case. Wherever possible, include tangible quantifiable benefits and expected measurable results. Include detailed costs (people and technology, upfront and ongoing); detailed offset (sometimes documented as revenue, or cost savings, or cost avoidance); and calculated project metrics as compared to the corporate thresholds (think IRR, ROI, NPV, etc).

The delicate art of misdirection

Even when you are equipped with great supporting materials and in a good groove for delivering your presentation, there will be times when some decision-makers will disagree with your business-case assumptions. Maybe things don’t look the same from their side of the table. Maybe they know something you don’t. Maybe they stepped on their kid’s Lego truck this morning and bruised a pinky. Whatever the reason, you must be prepared to counter this threat to your business case.

This is where you must delve into the magician’s bag of tricks to solve the problem. As any sleight-of-hand artist will tell you, the key to success lies in misdirection. Make the skeptic see what you want him/her to see. In this situation, you must move the focus away from any debateable assumption that is unlikely to have a significant impact on the business case, and shift it onto other assumptions that have a strong impact on the plus side of the case.

Presto! Business case approved.






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