Criteria Are Critical to Your Business Case

A key step in putting together a business case is to ask, “Who cares about what?” Who is your audience: the decision makers. What” is their criteria. The purpose of this step is to accurately determine your audience for your business case and the factors they will use—their criteria—in making their investment decision.

I always get asked, Why do this step? I have two reasons:

  1. You can avoid missing key decision criteria. Overlooking these criteria can undermine the validity of the business case and its creators.
  2. You can really focus your team resources on payoff areas: the areas of most importance to the final decision.

I had a colleague back at HP explain trying to determine criteria once as “trying to win a poker game but being ignorant of the rules.” That is very true. You wouldn’t know if aces were high or low, if jacks were wild or not, or what the betting limits were. Without that knowledge, playing the game would be a waste of time, right? Its the same thing when putting your business case together. The game being played is IT investment selection, and the players are the decision participants (who, by the way, have rules by which they decide if the business case wins or loses). The main rules of the IT investment selection game are the decision criteria that these players use.

Over the years, I have seen some potentially fatal decision criteria mistakes. I wanted to make sure I laid these out for readers, so that you can avoid them.

  1. Criteria used in the business case are deemed irrelevant by decision makers.
  2. Criteria are missing that are of high interest to decision makers.
  3. Criteria focus too much on systems and data benefits and not enough on business-value implications.
  4. Intangible criteria are mistakenly left out or underplayed.
  5. Criteria that could have been tangible (e.g., monetarily quantified) are shown instead as intangible (e.g., as nonmonetary benefits).
  6. Criteria that should have been shown as intangibles are presented as unbelievable tangibles.
  7. The most important criteria are underanalyzed and the least important criteria are overanalyzed.

This criteria step has four key tasks and will provide strategies and methods for avoiding problems like the ones I outlined above.

Task 1:  Define Decision Makers

Let me put a little more definition around the term “decision makers.” These are people who either directly influence or actually make the decision to invest in the infrastructure being presented in the business case. In essence, they are the only ones who count when you are putting your case together. You need to understand their vision, values, and goals if your business case is to succeed.

I have always found that grouping these decision makers helps. I group them by name, enterprise responsibility and/or title, and decision-process role. You need to know who these people are and what they do if you are to ensure that you know what’s important to them.

Task 2:  Identify Decision Criteria

This task is the most time-consuming and labor-intensive part of this step. Decision criteria are the factors (both tangible and intangible) that are used by decision makers to determine the attractiveness of investment alternatives. What we are going to do in this task is flush out what those criteria are. What I usually shoot for here are between thirty and forty decision criteria “candidates,” which I then filter down to the top six to twelve.

Having had many years of putting these things together, I know of a number of pitfalls, and I’d like to make you aware of them. These are very common, so make sure you are mindful of them. Double-check everything.

  1. Asking the right people, who then give wrong answers (either inadvertently or on purpose).
  2. Getting the right answers from the right people, but then having the business case team misinterpret the remarks.
  3. Being unable to contact the right people.
  4. Overlooking valuable secondary sources.

As you can probably imagine, having any erroneous or missing criteria can mislead management into making the wrong decision.

There are three main principles of good decision-making criteria that you should always keep in mind:

  1. Business-results focus: Define the value in terms of business results, not system functions or features.
  2. Who cares about what: You need to link value to the personal concerns of the individual decision makers.
  3. Alignment: You need to maintain strict linkages of investment features to enterprise business needs.

I think we can all agree that the objective of this task is to find the right criteria and then place them in the business case exactly where they have the highest value. So, imagine a triangle with its base being the systems/data (managers) layer, the next layer the objectives/tactics (VPs, directors) layer, and its peak the strategic results (CEO, Board of Directors) layer. The goal here is to get as many of the decision criteria as possible above the systems/data layer and into the areas where criteria for the majority of business cases that win are found. These top two groups think, plan, and operate in the realm of business results. This is where you need to be focusing.

Even though you are targeting the enterprise area where business results live, you need to be sure to align with the interests of the decision makers.

Hope this helps. More to come. Good luck!

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