The foundations of systems thinking and facilitation apply to business cases because the analysis requires a group to establish the nature of separate and inter-related components. This article discusses five ways to effectively facilitate business cases by conducting pre-session exchanges, asking powerful questions, using exercises that engage, anticipating disruption, and controlling the tempo.
Business cases justify allocating the resources to a project or task. Business cases provide a clear problem statement, compelling options, data, logical reasoning, and conclusions as a decision-making tool. The depth and comprehensiveness of business cases vary with the complexity and uncertainties associated with the decision that must be made. Many organizations have structured formats to assure consistent approaches across geographies and departments.
Facilitation is defined as a structured session(s) in which the meeting leader (the facilitator) guides the participants through a series of predefined steps to arrive at a result that is created, understood, and accepted by all participants." As provided in the definition, the fundamentals of good facilitation are always essential. For business cases, predefined steps and a process for arriving at results that are created, understood, and accepted by all participants are especially important as different interests compete against each other for their share of limited organizational resources.
Facilitating Business Cases
A business case, or business case evaluation (BCE) or business case analysis (BCA), is a decision-making tool that assists in making value-based funding decisions. Business cases can be performed for a business process as a part of continual improvement or for physical assets as part of their refurbishment, replacement, or improvement. Performed early capital and operating budget cycles as a standardized and systematic process, business cases analyze the benefits and costs of various options to solve an identified problem or a cost-saving/revenue-generating idea.
A business case differs from studying alternatives to the same solution, such as performed in a Preliminary Engineering Report (PER). This is a fine but important difference. Business cases are value-based, meaning that they are performed when an idea is generated and consider the full range of the organization's values to determine an intended direction of action. PERs are alternatives-based, meaning that they are performed after an intended course of action is determined.
"With alternatives-focused thinking, you first determine what alternatives are available and then choose the best of the lot. With value-focused thinking, you end up getting much closer to getting all of what you want." - Ralph Keeney
One example is the decision to travel from one city to another – a business case is used to determine which mode of travel should be taken (i.e., car, bus, plane, train). A study of alternatives would be used to determine which route to take once the mode of travel is selected.
A central component of a business case is the inclusion of non-monetized values. An example is the Triple Bottom Line (TBL) which includes financial considerations, social impacts, and environmental benefits.
One of the most valuable aspects of a value-based business case is that relative costs can be used. In the travel example, it is unnecessary to know the exact cost of a plane ticket versus a bus ticket versus a car's mileage because the relative costs are more important in the planning phase. The actual costs only matter when choosing between alternatives between different airline carriers. Focusing on the values-based decision saves time and avoids internal "analysis paralysis" when too many variations are available.
Step 1 – Define the Problem or Opportunity
Step 2 – Executive Sponsor Assigns BUSINESS CASE Lead and Support Team
Step 3 – Hold Kick-off Meeting
Step 4 – Develop Problem Statement
Step 5 – Formalize the Description of the Options
Step 6 – Confirm Problem Statement and Options with Executive Sponsor
Step 7 – Complete Analysis and Documentation
Step 8 – Presentation to Executive Sponsor
These are five ways to be more effectively facilitating business cases.
The pre-session exchange for business cases should focus heavily on understanding the goals and objectives of the executive sponsors. One common point of discussion should be whether a values-based solution is on the table (i.e., to travel by car, train, or plane) or whether an alternatives-based solution is all that is required (i.e., which airline to use or how many connections are acceptable). Additional points of discussion include the span of solutions (i.e., related to internal aspects of the company or just one facility) and, correspondingly, which people should participate in the business case evaluation team.
The pre-session exchange with participants should focus on their project list and their understanding of the issue that is to be considered, preliminary options that they would consider and available data. Insights on how the organization has made past decisions on similar issues are also helpful.
Most of the powerful questions when facilitating business cases are related to understanding options, data, and business processes. The use of imagination and clarifying questions is always in play.
Experienced business case facilitators also use powerful questions to prevent the evaluation team from trying to dive in and solve the problem. Always remember that the business case evaluation team is there to prepare the justification but not make the decision. Powerful questions can adroitly lead team members to realize on their own that they are going too much into solutions without the facilitator having to state that they have crossed the line more bluntly.
"A BCE gets you what you need. That may be a little different than what you thought in the beginning, but the process helps you get to the right place" - Capital Program Manager
Exercises That Engage
Multiple sessions are required for most business cases. Rotating the exercises will provide the most engagement. In early sessions, I like using an Audience Response Systems (ARS) to make sure everyone feels their voices are being heard. Early sessions are also a good time for break-out groups to define options and help team members get to know each other.
Different polling tools are also essential in the middle sessions where criteria, weightings, and preferences are being evaluated. With more complex business cases, The middle sessions are also a good place to insert scenario planning to shake up some of the thinking that may be consolidating too soon (in the spirit of Sam Kaner’s double decision diamond).
Normally, the biggest disruptor associated with business case prioritization occurs when all participants are not on the same page (some may have more history or previous reports) or a lack of preparation. Getting advance information out to participants at least a week in advance is good practice to minimize these issues. Some pre-session polling using Microsoft Forms or Google Docs also serves as good refreshers, even for the middle sessions.
Another disruptor is one or more participants wanting the evaluation team to make the final decision. This is often the result of a vested interest in the solution, so passions can be elevated. The best method for reducing this type of disruption is to remind the team at every session that the team's purpose is not to make the final decision and to have regularly scheduled meetings with the executive sponsor to underscore a two-level process.
Controlling the Tempo
Developing a Business case takes multiple sessions. Multiple sessions require much work upfront documenting the project details, some thoughtfulness on how to sub-group projects during the facilitated session(s), and developing an efficient set of automated tools to make the process more engaging.
Tiered (or scalable) approaches are desirable by most organizations. Smaller investment decisions may not require a simple financial analysis and subjective non-monetized evaluation. One example may be to replace a piece of laboratory equipment with a similar one or to upgrade to a higher technology device with built-in analytics. Another example may include the evaluation of in-sourcing or out-sourcing routine maintenance activities.
Larger investment ideas require a more detailed financial evaluation (capital costs, operating costs, salvage value, time value of money, etc.) and a more structured approach to the non-monetized assessment (such as multi-criteria analysis with a group). The business case would follow the same standard format, but the higher-tier business case would include two to four pages of text plus attachments.
Make sure to have a good guiding graphic of the business case process and keep each work session to no more than two hours. Both keep the process "bite-size" and minimize participant fatigue. Like toot cause analysis, most organizations can only do formal business cases on the most important opportunities and challenges. Proceed efficiently but be deliberate.
Thinking About It
Building better business cases enable technical professionals and decision makers to get more of what they need. What may be needed in the end may differ from what any single person initially wanted, but the organization will get what it needs and the best use of resources.
With that said, the ultimate power of the business case is in the alignment and culture it builds for implementation. Having everyone work through a structured process where the results are created, understood, and accepted by all participants.
JD Solomon Inc provides facilitation at the nexus of facilities, infrastructure, and the environment. Contact us for more information about facilitation services ranging from Strategic Plans and Board Retreats to Criticality Analysis, Root Cause Analysis, and Capital Program Development. For more information on JD’s new book or to join the community of technical professionals committed to learning how to get their boss’s boss to understand, visit Communicating with FINESSE or sign-up for updates.