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Why "Do nothing" will sell your business case

Friday, October 20, 2023

Graphic of a line chart in classic rise-and-fall against a reddish bar chart background

A business case tells a story. It starts with how your world isn't as great as it could be. The hero (you) goes on a quest to make changes to working practices, products, tools and people. Along the way are some challenges, but at the end everything is so much better than it was before.

The story we need to tell isn't a single plot. Not only do you need to show how much better things will be, you also need to show how that compares to not going on the quest.

In other words, you need to show what happens if you do nothing and let today's state of affairs rumble on.

Why we're bad at pitching the status quo

We're pretty bad at doing this in business cases. We get wrapped up in showing how today's sales are X, but tomorrow they could be X-times-a-thousand if only we invest in The Plan. We forget to show what would happen to X if we did nothing. That can be quite a compelling story.

Something happened that made you come up with The Plan. You might have noticed how costs were rising, quality falling or more customers were complaining about the same thing. These didn't just happen. They were building over time.

Give yourself a baseline to pitch against

A few months ago I worked on a business case where the client wanted to rip out their production line and start again. Machinery was falling apart, tooling was worn out and they couldn't make products customers wanted.

Version 1 of the business case set all this out in lovely charts. Yet it didn't quite land. It didn't feel compelling than 12% of products had to be reworked on the production line. Or that production halted for an hour once a week because something broke.

The business case argued for improvements over a 5 year timeline. It stated the problems as facts about this moment in time.

Show how better the world will be

What was compelling was the data showing a steady decline in quality, rising costs from reworking and a correlation with falling sales. Interviews highlighted machines far past their life expectancy being held together by mechanical know-how with parts bought on eBay. And the guy who knew these machines inside out was due to retire in a couple of years.

Business Case 2.0 projected these trends forwards across the same time horizon as those for The Plan. It showed what might happen the longer nothing was done. How unit costs would rise, sales would fall and eventually the business would go bust within 5 years. Sooner if one of the machines on the production line finally died.

The bottom line: show what standing still means

Doing nothing can be a compelling position for some decision makers. Intuitively we assume this stance means nothing changes. Except it does. Whatever trends we're already caught up in will grow more pronounced and our problems worse.

If you present these in your business case and project them forwards across the same time horizon as your great idea, you'll make it easier for decision makers to support you.

My name is Ross Hori

I'm a freelance writer, designer and photographer. By day I create articles, features and reports. At night I take photos and write fiction.

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