Making the case
business-case templates give project teams the direction they need to deliver the right project, right on time
BY SARAH FISTER GALE
PORTRAITS BY CHRIS HAMILTON
A project that closes on time, on budget and within scope isn't an instant success. Strategic alignment is another key piece of the puzzle—one project teams can lose sight of as they dive into the daily details.
Clearly defining a project's intended benefits at the outset can help project teams actively advance the organization's strategy. According to PMI's recent Pulse of the Profession® report, The Strategic Impact of Projects: Identify Benefits to Drive Business Results, organizations that frequently identify benefits before the start of a project see 74 percent of initiatives meet goals and business intent. In comparison, only 48 percent of projects deliver similar results when organizations don't have this practice in place.
Incorporating a business-case template into the initiation process can help project teams gather the information they need to make the right decisions as projects move forward. At the global financial research firm MSCI, for instance, “a business case is part of the due diligence process,” says Jayant Patil, PMP, vice president, MSCI, Mumbai, India. “By measuring the benefits, costs and risks associated with the investment being made, you can best assess and evaluate the options available to solve the business issue.”
“A business case is part of the due diligence process.”
—Jayant Patil, PMP, MSCI, Mumbai, India
At MSCI, the business-case template relies on information gathered to address several issues, including explaining why the project is necessary, recommending business solutions, defining organizational benefits, determining how much money, resources and time are necessary, identifying risks and measuring the financial impact.
“A solid business case for a potential project helps secure funding and a committed sponsor for it,” Mr. Patil says. “It also helps in correct prioritization of the projects. This is a mechanism through which organizations decide and implement their business strategy.”
But project leaders by themselves can't define how business cases are developed. Formalizing and implementing a standardized template requires cooperation from sponsors and other key stakeholders, as well as strong collaboration between project managers and business analysts. Introducing a template that engages players across the organization adds time to the process, but ultimately leads to a stronger business case that produces better results, says Ken Watson, PMP, business-case team leader for the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
“Going with the opinions of a few people would certainly be quicker, but the conclusions you come to may not be the best,” Mr. Watson says. “It's amazing how differently everyone views the project when you have a strong businesscase process in place.”
“When stakeholders take the time to talk through every aspect of the project, everyone agrees on the assumptions about project outcomes before you begin.”
—Newman Serrano, PMP, Unisys Brazil, Belo Horizonte, Brazil
Collaborative conversations with key stakeholders help ensure all project needs and risks are identified and give the team a chance to address any outstanding concerns before moving forward. These might include financial constraints, timing issues, technology challenges or talent gaps, says Newman Serrano, PMP, project director, Unisys Brazil, Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
“When stakeholders take the time to talk through every aspect of the project, everyone agrees on the assumptions about project outcomes before you begin,” he says. That creates alignment on goals from the outset and ensures teams have buy-in from stakeholders before moving ahead.
Rolling out a business-case template can reduce the burden on project leaders by empowering lower-level team members to think more strategically. A standardized process gives every team the ability to create a solid project plan, regardless of its business expertise.
It Takes Two
Business analysts play an important role in refining a project's strategic goals and benefits, says Ken Watson, PMP, businesscase team leader for the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Aviation Administration, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
Although the roles of the business analyst and project manager typically don't overlap when business cases are being developed, the two work hand in hand. While the project manager focuses on the big picture, the business analyst focuses on analyzing data and technical writing, he says.
“Our business analysts act as interpreters or translators,” Mr. Watson says. “They have the special ability to listen to stakeholders and convert jargon into a common language.”
“Our business analysts … have a special ability to listen to stakeholders and convert jargon into common language.”
—Ken Watson, PMP
This is especially useful when decision-makers aren't familiar with the specifics of the project in question—like when a government agency has to ask lawmakers to support a specific initiative. “The easier our business cases are to understand, the greater chance we have to get funding,” Mr. Watson says.
Collaboration between project owners and business analysts yields a clearer view of the strategic benefits for the business, says Janette Sakamoto, PMP, human resources business leader, Unisys Brazil, São Paulo, Brazil. At Unisys Brazil, it results in an exchange of information, knowledge and understanding about how business, technical and management domains can help build the right business case, she says.
“Business analysts can see the pros and cons for the proposed solution not only in terms of costs, risks and governance, but also regarding the accountancy management, competitive advantages and other business aspects.”
The FAA's business-case template has two primary sections that help teams build a strong business case. The first outlines the problem to be solved and the proposed solution. “This section includes all of our assumptions, data about current conditions, constraints, risks and any evaluation criteria we used to come up with this plan,” Mr. Watson says. The second section includes alternatives, including other potential solutions—and the potential impact of doing nothing at all.
The Texas Department of Public Safety in Austin, Texas, USA has a similar business-case template for all major projects overseen by the enterprise project management office (EPMO). The template requires project owners to outline how the project will meet specific state needs, says Jessica Ballew, deputy assistant director of policy and planning. It asks a series of questions to stakeholders, including subject matter experts and service providers, such as, “What will the project involve? Who are the key stakeholders? What resources will the project require?”
“Answering the questions is an iterative process, as each subject matter expert provides their perspective.”
—Jessica Ballew, Texas Department of Public Safety, Austin, Texas, USA
“Answering the questions is an iterative process, as each subject matter expert provides their perspective,” Ms. Ballew says.
The EPMO's business-case template also asks teams to discuss why the proposed project plans are better than possible alternatives. By examining the project outcomes from multiple perspectives, the organization can stave off the potential for buyer's remorse. For example, if the department needs a new IT solution, the business case will include the development and maintenance costs, schedule, benefits and risks of building it in-house, as well as comparison data for going with a private vendor. “By including this data, questions get answered before they are asked,” Ms. Ballew says.
Template for Success
The Texas Department of Public Safety has a formal business-case template that prompts project leaders to ask the tough questions, says Amanda Arriaga, chief administrative officer and enterprise project management office leader at the department, Austin, Texas, USA. Here's how the template helps project teams challenge their assumptions—and move the best projects forward.
- What needs to be done and what is the recommended approach to accomplish it? This helps establish project scope.
- Will this require a new contract or a change to an existing contract?
- Will this project impact, benefit or change how another division conducts its business?
- Individuals and organizations that will need to provide input or need to be informed about the project.
- Project team staffing needs by role or tasks per division. For each role, how many highlevel tasks will that individual need to complete?
- Project dependencies or related efforts. For example, determine which efforts must be completed before the project can start or complete.
- The projected fiscal impact to the department, program or division.
- A description of the project milestones and target completion dates.
- A brief summary of considered alternatives—one of which should be maintaining the status quo. The reasons for not selecting the alternatives should also be included.
- Risks, assumptions or constraints.
- Anticipated training needs. In the description section, identify training expectations, including who will be responsible for providing the training.
- How performance will be measured after completion and how success will be defined.
- The technical business functions or procedures that would be modified or automated by the project.
“It's amazing how differently everyone views the project when you have a strong business-case process in place.”
—Ken Watson, PMP
THE BEST PATH FORWARD
In addition to keeping projects strategically aligned, business-case templates can bring cost-saving opportunities into the light. For instance, on a recent runway lighting renovation project at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport in Avoca, Pennsylvania, USA, the formal business-case development process helped Mr. Watson's team find a more affordable way to meet the organization's strategic goals.
The runway lighting system had been placed out of service because it failed to meet federal safety codes—reducing the minimum number of planes that could land during bad weather. Based on the deterioration and age of the system, the team believed the standard solution would be to replace the entire runway lighting system. This would have cost the airport between US$8 million and US$10 million.
Yet, bringing together a group of experts to create the business case allowed the team to vet possible alternatives and select one that best met the financial, regulatory, quality and economic needs of the airport and its customers. By repairing the components that needed minimal work and using advanced technology to redesign the remaining runway lighting system, the project team cut the final cost to just US$3 million. The first phase of the project, which restored the lighting system for primary operations, was completed in 2014. The second phase, which will add new lighting system capabilities, is scheduled to be finished in September 2016.
“Because of our sound process and the level of the expertise within that group, we were able to come up with a solution that solved this problem and had the system operational before the winter months. And we did so for one-third of the original estimate,” Mr. Watson says. PM
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