Project Business Cases – why have one?

What are Project Business Cases?

The definition of a project is (as per the APM Body of Knowledge 6th Edition) “a unique, transient endeavour, undertaken to achieve planned objectives, which could be defined in terms of outputs, outcomes or benefits. A project is usually deemed to be a success if it achieves the objectives according to their acceptance criteria, within an agreed timescale and budget.” This means that a project is trying to change something or create something. Working back from this, the creation of a project means that something has been identified that needs to be changed or indeed needs to be created. Project Business Cases are documents that captures the WHY of the project. Why is the project required? Project Business Cases do not delve deep into the how, when, where, who etc as this is all part of the Project Management Plan (or PMP for short).

Note, Project Business Cases can often be called different things. They have been referred to as Project Brief, Project Charter, High-Level Project Plan and others.

Whatever the Business Case is called, its reason for being is to clearly show WHY the project should be created. It should provide enough justification to senior managers within the organisation so that they can assess and give the project the go-ahead.

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Who owns Project Business Cases and what is in them?

The Business Case is owned by the Project Sponsor. Not the Project Manager. It is the highest-level justification for beginning a project. Projects should be endorsed at a high-level by the Project Sponsor who should effectively “own” the project. It is that person who also owns the benefits of the project and provides the crucial link between the project and the overall business. The Business Case will show how the project contributes to, and supports, the corporate strategy. Projects should sustain or increase the competitive advantage of an organisation.

As we have noted, Project Business Cases outline the WHY behind a project. For this reason, it is clear that the Business Case should be the very first thing produced. The project should not be authorised without a Business Case. In fact, it is the very document that will be presented to the board (or project authorizing group) in order to get permission to start and to devote resources to producing a comprehensive Project Management Plan.

Contents of a Project Business Case

Quite often, an organisation will have a standard way, or template, for writing a Business Case. In organisations that are fairly advanced with their Project Management processes and have embedded best-practice, the Business Case template will have been designed to include the key bits of information that the board (or project authorising body) need, or want, in order to fully assess and authorize a project’s suitability for the specific organisation.

However, typically, there are common key parts that should be included. These are:

  1. Reasons – the WHY answer – why is the project needed and being proposed. Within this section, the high-level objectives should be listed. These objectives should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely).
  2. Options – it is never the case that the only option available is to complete a particular project in a particular way. The option to “do nothing” is always an option and must be included. It may be that the only “sensible” option is to complete a project, but other options must be looked at here.
  3. Benefits – the benefits of the project are crucial. Not only are they a very large part of the “sell” of a project, they should also be the very benchmarks that the project is judged against when reviewed throughout the project life-cycle. Is the project still on track to deliver its business benefits? It is important to include any unavoidable disadvantage or downsides to completing the project here – its disbenefits.
  4. Risks – the Business Case should include the key high-level risks to the project, and indeed the business. It will not go into the detail of Risk Management or Risk Control as these will be covered in depth by the Project Management Plan using strategies designed specifically to efficiently identify and manage risks. The impact of risks on the project should be outlined however.
  5. Commercial aspects – this section should cover the costs of the project, the funding arrangements if they are needed and the investment appraisal.
  6. Timescales – how long is it anticipated that the project will take to complete? The end point for the project is the delivery of outputs, the realisation of benefits may not conclude for some time thereafter, and to do this effectively a Benefits Realisation Plan may be required.

Every project is boundaried by TIME / COST / QUALITY requirements. It is crucial to identify these within a Business Case. In the real world boundaries often shift, minds are changed and goalposts move. It is incredibly difficult to deliver a successful project with moving goalposts. One way of stopping them move is having them clearly identified at the very start within the Business Case.

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