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How to write a business case: Lessons from a certified PMP

Adrian Tolliday, veteran project manager and winner of the exciting Palm Mall Aquarium contract, completed his PMP training with us back in 2011.

We sat down with him to discuss project management in the real world, and how to write a business case that’s guaranteed to win you contracts and investment.

Updated on: 11th November 2019

Where we were once tasked with teaching him the ropes, he’s now teaching us a thing or two about project management, all the while earning PDUs (professional development units) to keep his PMP certification up to date and relevant. 

Being PMP certified wins you contracts

It has been many years since I completed my PMP training with Learning People… In fact, I remember starting just after Christmas 2011 and it was my challenge for the New Year.

I am now closing in on my second PDU cycle and realise that I still need 25 PDUs to maintain my credentials! What better way to earn some PDUs than to share some of the experience I have gained from implementing the training I received.

Looking back over the last few years I often ask myself; was investing that time and money worth it? Well, I can honestly answer that with a resounding YES!

This brings me on to my latest project and how I secured it. I am fortunate enough to be writing this from a sunny beach on the coast of Oman, as I recently the contract for a new aquarium project within the ‘Palm Mall’, Mabelah, on the outskirts of Muscat.

Setting up a business might be considered by many to be a risky strategy in the current economic climate. Sometimes I might well agree with them – but when things go right, as they often do, there is no better feeling than working for yourself on your own terms. 

I’ve learned to apply the knowledge and skills from my PMP training to every aspect of my work and business life.

Learning People | Adrian Tolliday holding newspaper article of project he managed

Bringing your project concept to market

How does being a project manager help someone who wants to be an entrepreneur? Well, as I was taught during my training ‘everything is a project’; from moving an office, to building a public or private aquarium, designing a new product or creating a new service. The creation of a company can even be a ‘project’.

If you have seen my previous blogs, you may know that I am an aquarium freak. I want to build exciting new animal based attractions that leave the old designs and storylines where they belong… in the past. How do I get someone to buy into those ideas is one of the biggest challenges that I have faced and during the last few years I have spent a great deal of time in the ‘Initiating’ phase of a project?

It’s not easy to bring a new visitor attraction concept to the market.

Initiating phase: how to write a business case

So for this blog post, I’m only going to focus on one of the stages in the ‘Initiating’ phase – the ‘Business Case’. I want direct you to a superb website that I discovered a few years ago, which offers free templates for the different stages within every phase of your project.

Getting approvals for any project isn’t easy and sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. The templates on this website will literally hand hold you through the process and it becomes easier when you follow them, because everything relates back to the training you’ll have had with Learning People.

The first stage in any project is to identify your stakeholders:

  • Who is it that you’ll pitch to?
  • Who’ll need to help you gather more information?
  • Who, in your team, is best placed to support you?
  • Is there any public sector, or government officials, you need to identify?

Anyone who will have an input, or a potential input should be placed on your stakeholder register. Then, you will need to analyse each one.

How much influence do they have, or how important are they? Who do you need to keep happy and, who can potentially be a thorn in your side? Put them all on your list.

You should now be able to prepare your business case.

Learning People | Project management aquarium build

Time to talk templates

There may only be one opportunity to pitch the project, so you need to demonstrate that you have all the information required and have it presented in an organised and concise way; a way that flows when it’s read and makes it easier for the project sponsor to add that all important signature to the document.

So, let’s run through the stages of preparing your business case… first download the template.

Creating your project business case

1. Executive summary

Don’t fill this in just yet; leave it until the end. Once you’ve completed your business case you can come back to this and create a summary. When you get down to it, remember to keep it punchy – concise and to the point. Don’t waffle.

1.1. Issue

Be sensitive in how you present the problem. Some people have terrible egos, so if you explain the issue as you see it, you may shoot yourself in the foot. Be tactful. If the issue isn’t likely to offend anyone then go ahead and make your statement…

NB: don’t put the solution here, as that comes later.

1.2. Anticipated outcomes

Be clear and objective and try to include some measurable statements. For example, “By building this aquarium we will increase visitors to the area by 500,000. They will contribute £20,000,000 to the local economy and 100 jobs will be created.”

Make sure that the statements are realistic though.

There is nothing worse than being left with ‘egg on your face’ if only 200,000 people come through the doors, instead of the 500,000 you predicted. Your credibility will be destroyed if, after your first project, you do not achieve the majority of your anticipated outcomes.

1.3. Recommendation

Relate this section back to how the project will satisfy company objectives and/or relatable growth plans. Read the examples on the templates to help you understand the sections better.

1.4. Justification

You need to help the sponsor make the right decision and really get behind your plan. Make it easy for him/her/them to back the proposal; be very clear and layout some figures that they can relate to. What are some of the negative outcomes if they don’t back the project? Be sure to use that fear to focus your justification.

2. Business case analysis team

Who is your team for this project? Your team is one of your most important assets on any project. There’s no way you can do everything yourself, so you must pick people whom you trust and know can do the job. Highlight them in this section and define their roles clearly. Leave no ambiguity, as scope gap can kill the success of any project.

3. Problem definition

3.1. Problem statement

It kind of feels like we already did this in the ‘issues’ section, doesn’t it? Read through the example on the template and get a feel for how you need to describe your ‘problem’. Also, be aware that some companies might not like the word ‘problem’ as it infers that there is a failure somewhere. I have often changed this to ‘opportunity statement’… which seems less derogatory.

3.2. Organisational impact

How will this affect the investor’s organisation? Is it going to create more revenue, save costs, or improve efficiency? Relate all the positives to the sponsor.

3.3. Technology migration

An interesting section and one which I confess to having left out on occasions as it didn’t seem quite relevant. However, read the section through on the template and decide for yourself how it relates to your own situation.

4. Project overview

The first paragraph on the template is pretty much written for you, just change the specific details to make it relevant to your project.

4.1. Project description

This summary is effectively your ‘mini project plan’; describe your project and how it will tackle the ‘problem’ or ‘opportunity’ that you have already highlighted. How will you do it and why?

4.2. Goals and objectives

This is reasonably self explanatory. You would’ve had some ideas of why you wanted to do the project, so list them out and say how the project will help realise these goals. Do make them business specific though.

4.3. Project performance

This is an important section. I was once told that if you don’t measure something, then how do you know how to improve on it!? The same applies to your project; how are you going to measure success and keep an eye on the projects performance?

Some people hate procedures and paperwork but trust me when I say that good tracking and reporting can save you massive headaches throughout your project. They can also quickly identify slippage and scope gap… two elements that can destroy a project… especially budget and schedule.

4.4. Project assumptions

Sometimes this early in a project it is just impossible to get bona fide data or commitments, so one needs to list all the assumptions. Make sure they’re realistic and achievable.

4.5. Project constraints

There are generally always some constraints that can be identified for the business case. It’s good if you already have an idea of how you can address these constraints as you enter in to the project planning phase.

4.6. Major project milestones

This is a critical section and you need to get it right. You want to make sure that you identify key points in the project and when they are likely to happen. This gives the investor something to relate to and, often stage payments are linked to these milestones. They’ll become more specific and detailed in the planning phase but they’re important to document at this stage.

5. Strategic alignment

It’s generally good to research the sponsor’s company policies and corporate goals to ensure that your project supports those. If you can relate the success of your project to achieving a corporate goal, then you have more chance that the sponsor will support your business case. Your project needs to bring value to the corporation.

6. Cost benefit analysis

Your investor may well skip everything else in your business case and head straight for this section. How much money is needed for this project and what is the return, or the savings to the sponsor’s company? Your figures need to be well supported and independent of this business case, because your sponsor is likely to have a team of bean counters below him/her who will scrutinise your figures with eagle eyes.

So, for this section its high level numbers only, but have a seriously good spreadsheet to support it if the sponsor wants to do their due diligence – you’ll need to be able to justify every single statement in this section without doubt or disparity.

7. Alternatives analysis

Approving your project is just one option open to the sponsor or investor. They can reject it or they can select an alternative. You need to objectively outline the results of these potential – but unwanted – choices, by describing the potential outcome of each alternative.

You really do need to make it obvious that there is only one real option available to the sponsor and that is to approve your project… some call it the ‘no brainer’ choice.

8. Approvals

The template offers you a straightforward closing statement that you can paraphrase and make relevant to your project.

So, what’s the next step?

Go back to the executive summary, re-read your proposal and literally write it up in a couple of short paragraphs.

If your sponsor, or investor, is one of those super busy or, rich, people, then they’ll potentially only read the ‘executive summary’ and the ‘cost benefit’ and may well make their whole decision based on those two sections alone. So, make them count!

Don’t waffle or write a novel. Be succinct and to the point. Remember though, if they like it, it’ll then get passed to the bean counters…

Final thoughts

Make sure that you download the template and work through this in tandem, as it will make so much more sense. I’ve used this template to win contracts and have received some very positive comments on business cases that I have sent to Middle East Sheikhs & Billionaire business men.

It certainly helped me win this current contract to build the biggest Aquarium in the Middle East at the ‘Palm Mall’, Mabelah – Oman Aquarium. I even got mentioned on the front page of The Times Oman, a great achievement and one I’m extremely proud of.

All I can say is that I am so glad I discovered Learning People when I did, and that fate pointed me in the direction of taking a project management course. It’s certainly sharpened my skills and taught me a raft of new ones.

Good luck with your projects….and one final comment; believe in your project and, have faith that it will happen. Never give up on it, if it’s your dream project, even if you get rejected the first time around, persistence is the key.

Learning People | Notepad and tablet on table

Follow Adrian’s project

Don’t forget to follow the project work that Adrian and his company Tolliday Group International Ltd are carrying out in the Middle East. If a course in project management sounds like it could start, or boost your career, then browse our courses and we’ll be happy to help.