5 Key Steps to Building a Business Case in a Downturn

Written by Brittany Anderson

As we edge into an era of economic strain, the likelihood of flakey projects getting across the line and executives taking big risks are slim. Learning how to nail your business case and confidently ask for investment in times of uncertainty will be vital.

Whether it’s technology, resourcing, or employer branding, the process for business case building across talent remains the same and our innate fear of rejection will often dictate our success. To help you feel more confident in your business case building abilities we called on two expert coaches who’ve walked the talk for many years.

Rebecca Houghton and Margie Kwan are both passionate coaches committed to upskilling HR professionals to DIY in-house instead of outsourcing to expensive consultants. Their on-demand How to Build a Winning Business Case for EVP webinar is a practical one-hour session on the necessary steps needed to get your proposal across the line. Keep scrolling for a recap and bonus video tips.

Why are business case skills important during a downturn?

When COVID-19 first sent shockwaves through the world many organizations scrambled to digitize their operations and communicate transparently with their employees. Some stepped up to the challenge by keeping their team connected in new ways and others who pushed on with new hires by tweaking their employee onboarding experience to be more inclusive.

Now there’s research to support that as organizations begin to emerge from the response phase, leaders are focusing on the next set of workforce challenges as they plan for the recovery. Many are using this time to reassess their talent goals, create data-informed strategies, and most importantly, bolster their business case building abilities.

As both resources and the appetite for risk begin to drop, getting buy-in from your executives will likely be a lot harder. Learning how to identify measurable benefits and exercise the art of influencing could really help you get your cases from now on across the line. So if you’re a TA or HR professional with the capacity to look ahead, follow the five key steps below to building a successful business case in a downturn.

Understand your business need

Every successful business case begins with the alignment of a business need. Before you search for that cookie-cutter template online and lock in the presentation date, you need to get really clear on the problem you’re looking to solve.

One guaranteed way of confusing your executives is to leapfrog your problem statement and lead with your solution. Set yourself up for a yes by following this specific three-part statement structure;

  • Why are you proposing the change? This could be a pain point, a risk, or (in the good old days of booming biz) an opportunity. 
  • Who will benefit from the problem being fixed? Shy away from the beneficiary being the organization, determine a real stakeholder who will reap the rewards. 
  • What are you suggesting as a solution? Leaving this to the end of your statement structure means persuasion is minimal as your stakeholders are likely sold by the pain.

A lot of us get focused on the fix or the solution and fall into the trap of being too general in our problem statement. The more specific you can be about your why and who, the better positioned you will be to test your business case. 

“If there’s one thing you take from this session it’s that writing a business case is about thinking and influencing, and not really about writing. For years I’d been starting in the wrong place and coming at it from the wrong angle. My first biggest mistake was Googling how to write a business case, the information was to get writing and that was totally the wrong place to start.” – Rebecca Houghton

Join the masterclass for more mistakes to avoid.

Exercise the art of influencing

Once you’ve figured out in step one who is going to benefit from you fixing the problem, your next action is to have a conversation with this primary target. There’s no point spending hours writing out your business need if you don’t know if it is causing significant pain to the beneficiary. 

Having a conversation is an influencing exercise that helps you assess your pain point priority, test an angle that resonates, successfully frame your pitch, and refine your method of measurement. By going through this pre-pitch process you’ll start to understand what works and what doesn’t.  

The biggest test of whether you’ve done your influencing well is the sense that there are no surprises on the presentation day. If you’ve taken the time to line up the right stakeholders then you’ll have a good feel for the strength of your case and the act of pitching will be less daunting. 

“The pre-pitch is where the work is done. If we apply the notion of influencing to the EVP world, I’ve always said that half the effort of developing an EVP is really about education and engagement. The number one thing you want to do is make sure that you are making friends with your cross-functional stakeholders through conversation.” – Margie Kwan.

Access a step-by-step online program that teaches you how to create your EVP in-house with The EVP Co.

Define your business benefits

Hands up if you’ve been caught out with fluffy benefits? You’ve probably discovered that executives really don’t like fluff or made-up metrics. In this step, you want to make sure that your benefits are measured against the right problem and that your measurements actually exist.

To sell a successful business case you need to show that the benefit you’ve identified can be measured by an existing baseline. A great example of this is a hard benefit like money in or money out. Anything that you can measure in dollars will help your case become watertight. 

Also, remember to steer clear of the whole organization being the beneficiary as your business is likely made up of many stakeholders and many budgets. It’s much easier to prove ROI by aligning with one stakeholder that owns the benefit.

“Make sure your benefit is a number that’s already being measured, otherwise, you run the risk of going down the rabbit hole of whether your metric is valid or not. The biggest problem with specialist metrics is that your executives don’t get it. And if they don’t get it, they don’t have time for it, and if they don’t have time for it, then you’ve got yourself a no.” – Rebecca Houghton

Refine your leadership communication skills with BoldHR.

Scope your implementation plan

Let’s be frank, there’s no point being brilliant at winning business cases if you fail at delivering on them. Creating an implementation plan is a non-negotiable when it comes to asking for investment. 

An implementation plan allows you to scope out the current capacity and capability in your team to deliver. If outsourcing is required then make sure it’s included in your case from the beginning and avoid the very embarrassing act of going back to leadership with your tail between your legs asking for more resources. 

The implementation planning process not only surfaces any hidden costs but also helps you nut out the key project milestones, any potential risk, and quick wins. Investing time in this step will allow you to visualize your plan and most importantly build stakeholder confidence. 

“You want to give your stakeholders confidence that you can deliver if you win investment. Illustrate the milestones and critical steps in your project. A plan shows that you haven’t just thought about the why, but how you’re going to deliver on the ROI.” – Margie Kwan

Get an implementation planning tool framework in this masterclass.

Deliver your business case

If you’ve followed the steps you’ll be relieved to know that all the hard work is now behind you. You’ve done the research, lined up your stakeholders, defined your solid benefits, and are confident in your ability to deliver on implementation. So the only thing left to do is formally put pen to paper. 

This final step is often misunderstood to be the most complex and time-consuming, but it’s actually the least. Your written business case and presentation need to be short and sharp to hold the attention of your executive team. Use simple language, keep it jargon-free, and consider adding stories to help illustrate your pain point.  

Once you’ve delivered your case, you are ready to make the ask. Don’t follow in the footsteps of many courageous business case writers who have failed to follow up on their investment request and sent their projects to the grave. It’s simple, back yourself, and know that you deserve to be invested in. 

“Pull back on your writing and presenting, and be succinct, your executives will thank you for it because they’re very busy. Also, don’t present your stakeholders with an ultimatum, what they like is a middle ground that shows some compromise in your thinking and something that allows them to break down gold, silver and bronze standards.” – Rebecca Houghton

More on delivering a successful business case in this Masterclass.

Any ask for investment during a downturn is going to have its challenges. Your executives will be clutching at conservative decision making and looking only at guaranteed outcomes. 

So as you begin to lift your head above the water and strategize for the new normal, remember to lead with identifying the business need, use conversation to influence the whole process, and make sure you can deliver on what you say you will. 

For more on defining your hard or soft benefits and executing a succinct delivery, join our Masterclass on How to Build a Winning Business Case for EVP.