Does Your Business Case Pass The Toddler Test?
I have written, reviewed, and signed off on Business Cases for over 15 years. I have been a parent for three and a half years. It took me two years of being a parent to realize the not always obvious overlap between these two important roles (one far more important than the other) and that being a parent has greatly helped me improve my writing and analysis of Business Cases.
The Business Case is the lifeblood of every project and within the PRiSM project lifecycle is a living, breathing document to be reviewed, reiterated, refined, and reconfirmed during every project phase. But what makes a well-written Business Case essential to a successful project is that it clearly outlines the justification for the project. The Why. Why this project over others? Why does this help sustain our business? Why take this risk now? Why does this create benefits and value to our customers?
In hindsight, I was rarely thorough, or frankly, patient enough with the whys of the Business Case. What changed that for me? Having a toddler. Around the time my son turned two he started asking “why”? roughly 612 times a day (give or take). If you have ever had a two-year-old, you realize the “why” rabbit hole is much deeper than anything Morpheus explained to Neo in The Matrix. By a long shot. “Why should I eat this?” “To grow big and strong?” “Why should I grow big and strong?” “So you can stop asking me why 612 times a day (give or take)”. The why chain of questioning usually ends one of two ways, me finally asking him if he wants ice cream (not a tactic I recommend) or him finally getting bored and asking to watch Fireman Sam.
I quickly understood that toddlers ask why for many important reasons. Out of sheer curiosity, to gain a better understanding of things that can seem very scary or confusing to them, to bond with people through communication, and to increase their confidence in activities and decision making (additional benefit: avoiding toddler tantrums later). Which are the exact same reasons Senior Executives ask why! Projects that cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars and change their Business As Usual are risky, scary and often confusing. The costs, risks, assumptions, success criteria, alternatives and sustainable and traditional benefits need to be fully outlined, communicated, understood, and agreed upon from the very outset (additional benefit: avoid Senior Executive tantrums later).
I have often reviewed Business Cases with the same blank look on my face as I get when watching Christopher Nolan movies, or my son does watching The Wiggles, because they are not fully fleshed out. I lived in Ottawa for 15 years. It is one of the coldest Capital cities in the world. Did the Business Case for the city’s Light Rail Transit not include how to keep the trains functioning in cold weather in its risk and assumptions? That’s as confusing as whether Leo DiCaprio was in reality or dreaming at the end of Inception. I live in Toronto where we are spending $3.5 billion (and counting) on a three subway stop extension. That’s as confusing as the last two and a half hours of Tenet (which is two and a half hours). In hindsight a solution to these issues could have been to simply have toddlers in the room asking why?
Incorporating tools such as the P5 Impact Analysis and Sustainability Management Plan, and more importantly, developing the patience, understanding and empathy needed as a parent, have enabled me to gain a stronger aptitude for explaining or asking about all aspects of the potential project such as why a proposed project considered nature base alternatives; why social or environmental benefits were given their assigned weight; why are sustainability benefits prioritized as they are; why are we choosing that supplier; etc. All of these questions, and a great many more, are required to make a properly informed decision.
So the next time you write a Business Case, ask yourself if it can withstand the pressure of a room full of toddlers. If you’re not certain, it’s time to work on the next version and ask more whys.