A business case has four key jobs to do:

  1. Explain the problem: lead with the need.
  2. Describe the possible options, including doing nothing.
  3. Recommend the best solution.
  4. Explain how it will be implemented.

Throughout your business case, it’s important to be as careful with words as you would be if you were writing an advertisement or brochure. Avoid waffle, jargon and wild guesses, keep your sentences simple and short, and don’t present anybody with dense blocks of text. You might not be selling a product, but you’re still selling something.


One of the simplest ways to present a business case is a four-part structure:

  • executive summary;
  • project definition;
  • finance;
  • project organisation.

However, that structure can be expanded a little bit, like this:

  • executive summary;
  • statement of the problem or issue;
  • full analysis of the current situation;
  • list of possible solutions, including doing nothing;
  • cost–benefit analysis of each possible solution;
  • recommended solution;
  • proposal for implementation.

It’s the same thing, just presented in a slightly different way. We’ll stick with the slightly simpler four-stage version, but the second one is just as valid and just as effective.

For really large or complex cases, you might want to break the categories down further.

The executive summary is the bird’s eye view of the proposal and it’s best to write it last when you have all the facts and figures at your disposal. It’s a short summary of the entire business case, and it should tell the person or people reading it everything they need to know without going into detail.

The project definition is where you provide the background to your proposal: here’s the issue, here’s what I propose we do about it, here are the benefits it will bring and here are the risks, potential limitations and issues it will raise.

Identifying the benefits is part of the ‘lead with the need’ we explored in previous chapters. It is the ‘why?’ to your business case’s ‘what?’: the increase in revenue, the reduction in wastage and the improvements that are not only possible but necessary.

As you’d expect, the finance section answers the million-dollar question: how much is this going to cost? Last, but not least, there’s the project organisation section, which says who will be doing what and how progress and success will be monitored. This section will include SMART objectives and RACI analysis if appropriate.

Let’s consider each section in turn.

Business Case Executive summary

If it’s going to be a fairly detailed document, then it’s a good idea to start with an executive summary. This is the business equivalent of the film industry’s elevator pitch, where you sell a movie idea in a sentence or two – so, for example, Alien was ‘Jaws in space’, and you could describe the Twilight movies as ‘Jane Austen meets Dracula’.

An executive summary doesn’t have to be quite that short – a written executive summary can be a few pages long if necessary; you can’t always encapsulate complex ideas in a few sentences. However, it does need to focus on selling your idea, not crossing every T and dotting every I. That’s what the rest of the document will do. Your executive summary is a sales pitch. You’re telling a story, and if you can’t sum it up simply, then you’re going to find it difficult to enthuse others. It may be the first thing the reader sees in the document, but it’s the last thing you should write.

Project definition

This is the section where you explain why the business needs are not currently being met, what the causes of that are and what needs to be done to address the issue. If there are multiple possible solutions, you detail them here and analyse each one to identify the pros and cons, and risks and benefits of each. That doesn’t mean including every conceivable solution; just the most relevant ones. The goal here is to demonstrate that you haven’t just chosen the first solution you encountered; you’ve come to recommend a particular option because you believe it fits most closely with the objectives of the organisation and provides the best benefit–cost ratio.


A benefit–cost ratio (BCR) is a rough guide to whether something offers value for money. I say rough because it’s purely based on money – and like many calculations, its results depend on what you feed it. To borrow an old IT adage if you put garbage in, you get garbage out.

To calculate the BCR, you divide the total expected benefits of a project by the total expected cost of implementing it. If the benefits exceed the costs, then you have a positive benefit–cost ratio; if the costs exceed the benefits, you’ll have a negative benefit–cost ratio. For example, if your BCR is 0.98 then for every pound you spend you’re getting £0.98 back, which isn’t very appealing; if it’s 1.2, then for every pound you get a much more attractive £1.20.

In practice it’s a little bit more complicated than that because you also need to factor in discounting – money will be worth less over time because of inflation and other costs.


This is where you break down details such as hardware costs, training costs, support costs, software licencing and any other quantifiable expenses. This section should generally include a contingency fund, because projects rarely run entirely to time or budget. This is where you’ll detail the ROI calculations.

There are two kind of expenditure here: operational expenditure (OpEx) and capital expenditure (CapEx), sometimes called PP&E for property, plant and equipment. CapEx is the money you spend on fixed assets such as buildings and servers. OpEx is the money you spend on keeping things running. For example, a laser printer is CapEx and its consumables are OpEx if you buy them outright; however, if you hire or lease the printer, it’s an operating expense because you don’t own it. Buying servers is CapEx; subscribing to a cloud-based service is OpEx.

If finances are not your area of expertise, it’s really important that you involve somebody who has the relevant knowledge, such as your company’s finance team or your manager. This section of your business case is crucial, and if the numbers don’t add up or don’t paint the right picture, your proposal is likely to be rejected.

Project organisation

In this section you detail your proposed implementation strategy: what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, who needs to do it, who’s accountable for any issues and how you propose to monitor progress to ensure that everything is going according to plan. Monitoring will usually involve identifying and tracking hard information such as hours worked or money spent, but you can also standardise monitoring of softer outcomes such as customer satisfaction by creating a standard measurement tool, for example an online questionnaire. And some outcomes can be monitored indirectly; so, for example, improved customer satisfaction may lower a customer ‘churn’ rate or increase average revenue per user.

This section is where you list the SMART goals you identified previously, and might also include details of what reviewing would be done after the proposed changes have been implemented.


A business case should be as short as possible without cutting corners. By all means show your workings by providing details of every single financial cost and projected benefit, but leave the granular detail to the appendices. That way the people who need that detail can get it, and the people who don’t, don’t have to wade through it.

Be wary of advice along the lines of ‘Begin your executive summary with language such as “this report is submitted in support of X. Provided is an evaluation and analysis of all relevant financial, marketing and business costs/considerations” …’, zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz Sorry, I nodded off.

By ‘be wary of’ I mean ‘pay no attention to’. A document that’s as boring as that before you’ve even got to the end of the second sentence isn’t going to win hearts or minds.

Business writing shouldn’t be as informal as other forms of writing, such as this book. It should be precise and professional, but it needn’t sap the reader’s will to live. If you write plainly and economically, and make good use of graphs, tables and images, you’ll achieve much more in a lot less time, with a lot less effort and over considerably fewer pages.

I’ll make this statement many times in this book: your business case is a sales document. Its job is to persuade people that what you’re proposing is a brilliant idea that should be funded completely and immediately. It may be a formal written argument rather than a few snappy slogans, but the objective is the same: to convince the reader to do something, in this case accept your proposed course of action.


  • Every case has four key jobs: explain the need, describe the options, recommend a solution and explain how it will be implemented.
  • Write the executive summary last, when you have all the key facts and figures.
  • Keep it short, but not too short.

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