Building a Business Case


I’ve been a public speaker for over a decade, presenting at user groups then progressing to become an organiser and speaker at large community IT events and conferences in New Zealand and Australia. I generally feel comfortable presenting a technical talk to a tech audience. This week I did something different, I spoke in the business / executive track at the Difinity Conference in Auckland on a topic that isn’t commonly talked about. I learnt a lot about myself and the IT community I’ve been part of for longer than I care to admit!

Difinity is a Data Platform and Business Intelligence focused conference and your typical attendee is the sort of person who loves data, presenting beautiful visuals and gaining interesting insights using cutting edge technology. Where your typical IT Pro will try to impress you with the bandwidth of their home internet connection, these people raise the stakes by sharing stories of how much time they can save by tuning a SQL query before breakfast. They are also a caring bunch, who refer to themselves as #SQLFamily.

Lets talk about my presentation for a moment. I was asked to speak in the business / executive track with a non-technical talk. I submitted my talk on how to write a business case. Basically, what sorts of things should I include in a document to get the boss to sign off and give the project the tick of approval. Shortly after that the self-doubt kicked in big time!

Talk about imposter syndrome on steroids! Am I good enough to present this topic? What if I miss a really important point that everyone else knows? What if someone asks me a question? What if my answer makes me look stupid? What if!? Panic!

I had two choices – fight or flight! Running away would be easy but something inside me said “you can do this”. I remembered some advice I’d give numerous first-time speakers at events I’ve organised. The Audience are friendly! It’s true! Believe me!

After I had delivered my presentation, I received a nice applause from the audience and a several good questions. People hung around to talk and some said, “we could tell you were nervous in the beginning and but that was a good talk”. It’s true, I was nervous and that’s a good thing. Nerves can be an asset, it’s your brain telling you that you care what the audience thinks. I had several other people come up to me later to say they had enjoyed my talk. I felt good that I’d done a good job. Relief!

You’re probably reading this because you’re interested in the talk itself. The topic as I mentioned earlier was “Building a Business Case”.  What I spoke about was stuff that everyone knows and, in my experience, takes thought and effort to do well.

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough – Albert Einstein

Key points:

  • Write the business case with the audience in mind
  • Avoid jargon and complexity
  • Ensure the financials are well researched and presented well
  • Present an alternative (it could be a do nothing)
  • If comparing options, explain the criteria used
  • Include a high-level project plan
  • Include pre-requisites, dependencies and limitations
  • Outline how the project will report back on progress
  • Work with your potential executive sponsor
  • Don’t waffle on. Keep it to the point

One thing I was careful to explain is that this is by no means a comprehensive check list for every situation, but it is a good self-check. Some organisations have well developed business case frameworks and others have none.

The last and most important point in the presentation is what to do when you get a response back. If the business case isn’t successful, ask why. You may have an opportunity to try again with some adjustments. If you are successful, ensure the business case document is referenced in the KPI’s used when reporting back on progress.

The observation I made while presenting was that technical people often don’t know how to explain something in a non-technical way. The know the tech well and drift towards writing technical documents even when the audience isn’t necessarily using the same language.

As I progress in my career, I realise the value of these non-technical skills. Find ways to push yourself outside the comfort zone and you’ll find yourself in interesting rooms speaking to people you never thought you’d get the opportunity to converse with.

Thank you to the Difinity Team for the opportunity and #SQLfamily for the friendship.

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