What’s in a name?

In Part 1 of this blog, we shared our top tips for writing a business case, in Part 2 we are going to discuss the different types of business cases, which to use and when.

At this point, it is worth noting that some organisations may use different names and terminology for their business cases, and associated processes. Others may simply use the term Business Case generically to refer to some or all of the below.

For this blog, we will stick to the terminology most often used, however, what you call the document is not that important, what matters is knowing the appropriate content and level of detail required at each stage.

So, you’ve got a twinkle of an idea, what happens next?

The first type of business case is known as a Strategic Outline Case (or sometimes a Project Initiation Document – though personally, I find this confusing as to me a PID is a project management tool).

A Strategic Outline Case (or SOC to its friends) is not always necessary and is generally used for more complex, often transformational, changes or projects when some “prep” work is required to ascertain whether or not it is worth pursuing an idea and committing resources to it. A good SOC will provide an organisation with sufficient evidence on which to make a pro-active decision to pursue or not an idea, avoid abortive work, and influence the direction of the next stage.

It may help to think of a SOC as answering the question- Why are we trying to do this? It should set out what problem you are trying to solve, identify ways the problem could potentially be solved, and the impacts of pursuing these solutions. These options should link back to your organisation’s (and national if relevant) policies and direction of travel, making sure the idea is a good strategic fit. Don’t be lazy though and just fall in with the pack. Be sure you’ve thought broadly about the many different ways you could achieve the same ends; it might save you and your organisation a lot of time and money.

Time spent now defining your project and aligning all parties’ expectations is time well spent if you want to avoid false starts and scope creep further down the line. This is a particularly important stage if you want to secure stakeholder engagement too to give the project its best chance of success.

Pass go, collect £200…

So your SOC was well received, and you were given permission to move to the next stage, known as the Outline Business Case (or OBC) – what do you do next? If the SOC answered the question why are we trying to do this, then the OBC answers What are we going to do?

You will have identified a range of options for progressing your idea or project in the SOC, and now is the time to refine, refine, refine!

By the end of the OBC stage, you should have your preferred option selected and clearly defined, along with an estimate of the financial impact (costs to realise the benefit, as well as what the benefit will be).

Finally, you should have considered ways in which the idea or project could be implemented, the necessary approvals and timescales associated with this, analysed which represents the greatest value for money and put in place a team to oversee the implementation. Be careful here not to just make the solution fit the prevailing opinion at Board or in your team. Genuinely ask yourself, have I thought through all the options and their implications? Only the brave will stand up and be counted at this stage, but this could be your career defining moment!

The final hurdle

The last stage of the process is the Final (or Full) Business Case (aka the FBC). If the FBC was a question, then it would be EXACTLY what are we going to do, and how are we going to do it?
At the start of the FBC stage, you will have proven your idea has benefit to the organisation and should have significant support for it going ahead. Now is it the time to “seal the deal” and translate that support into a formal sign-off, agreement or contract.

By the time your FBC is approved, you should be ready to start implementing the project – knowingly exactly how it will be approached, how much it will cost, how long it will take, and who will be involved. In essence, this document makes sure all the “i”s are dotted and the “t”s are crossed, as well as gathering all your necessary approvals, statutory and internal.

The FBC stage will also test how well defined your idea or project was at the SOC or OBC stage. The FBC should be a document of exceptions – filling in additional detail or documenting agreed changes, so the shorter the better! If you find that you are killing ideas off at FBC stage then you are not being thorough enough earlier in the process.

What stays the same:

It is important to none of these steps should be regarded as a standalone document. Each business case should include information on all five cases identified in The Green Book (Strategic, Economic, Commercial, Financial and Management).

Your SOC, as the name suggests, will include a more defined Strategic Case, as this establishes why the idea or project should be pursued. The other cases will naturally be higher level, and less specific at this time, as you are essentially proving the case to dedicate resources to fill out these sections.

As you move through the process, the work undertaken will enable the other cases to catch up to the level of detail provided in the SOC’s strategic case. Each step (or business case) should build on, refine and develop the content of the last – rather than ripping it up and starting again. That said, it is important to review the strategic section at each stage, either to validate the content or to recognise that the context you are working within and objectives you set out to achieve may need tweaking. Don’t try to hide or patch up a flawed argument; the sooner you recognise the error of your ways, the better! You also might find a better solution as a consequence. Get your peers to review your document with a critical eye to really test your assumptions and statements. It’s better that any flaws are spotted in private than in the full glare of your board or media spotlight!