Business cases aren't a waste of time

Are business cases just bureaucratic wastes of time and effort? My take has always been that business cases are valuable ways to describe and contrast potential project investments in order to make effective financial and business trade-offs. But the opposing view was voiced by several people at a recent conference. Do they have a point?

I don't think so. What they have instead, I suspect, is experience in IT organizations that use business cases as a way to avoid work. Asked if a new capability is possible, IT demands a business case before participating in discussions. Informal conversations and brainstorming are stymied by IT's refusal to have any substantive discussion on projects without a business case. These IT organizations are lazy and misguided, misusing business cases as a shield against doing productive work.

Properly used, business cases provide important information and valuable benefits. Among other things, they do the following:

Facilitate fact-based discussions. Which is better: projects funded based on the presenter's emotion, volume and political power, or on facts, logic and detailed analysis? A business case captures relevant facts (such as scope, costs, timetable and risks) that promote unbiased business decisions. This fact-based approach reduces opportunities for personal or political attacks during funding discussions and protects against unnecessary bad blood between departments.

Enable enterprisewide trade-offs. A standard business-case format helps the executive team determine objectively which investments provide the highest return, by ensuring consistent information and facilitating apples-to-apples comparisons. The fairness of this approach works against backroom horse-trading and backdoor, rogue projects.

Demonstrate the commitment of an executive sponsor. Successful projects require an executive sponsor who acts as both cheerleader and champion. As the project's primary advocate, the executive sponsor should be actively -- and visibly -- involved in all aspects of the business case from early on.

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