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Step 2: Knowing Your Audience and the Business Case Graveyard

Five Steps to Building a Business Case for Sustainability - Penn State University Smeal College of Business

We are learning how to build a business case for sustainability in five steps:

  1. Prepare

  2. Know your audience

  3. Construct the Case

  4. Crunch the Numbers

  5. Pitch the Case

If you missed the first three posts, go here to catch up. Quick recap: we have said that

  • a good business case is a compelling story about meeting a business need; and that we must

  • find out how and when decisions about proposals and business cases are really made

  • And to make a business case on a sustainability platform, daylight hidden opportunities for innovation by using your ESRO assessment (see below) to identify the needs of society along with the shorter-term needs of the business

Environmental and social risk and opportunity assessment (ESRO)


Step 2: Know Your Audience

"The fate of your project or initiative will usually lie with a small group or even one individual." (HBR Guide to Building Your Business Case, 2015).

When Bradley Cooper was preparing to play the role of Chris Kyle in the movie American Sniper, he woke everyday and put on headphones with interviews of Kyle. He listened to hundreds of hours of Kyle speaking. He worked on his accent, tone, and cadence of speech. Ultimately, as much as he could, he became Chris Kyle.

We must do the same. Who is the Chris Kyle that you must understand deeply in order for your business case to be effective? How can you get to know this person so that you "become" them? Who can help you? I do this even in small ways when preparing for important meetings. I ask myself, "what would it be like to be the COO of this company? If that was my job, what would really matter to me?"

People make a mistake when they develop a general business case that is "good for the business". Make no mistake, you are building a case for a specific decision-maker. Two key outcomes are needed from Step 2:

  • At the end of the day, who will either green light or kill your idea? You have probably identified that person or group of people in Step 1 when you learned how and when business cases are really evaluated and decided upon.

  • Who has power and who will have your back? These names also likely arose in Step 1. This is your chance to dig deeper and make sure you have a good short list.

First, finding out who really calls the shots isn't as easy as you might think. Everyone has their own bias and will often inflate the influence they have on a process. Gather evidence from the following sources:

  • Your boss is an obvious source for who makes the final decision

  • Business Case Graveyard and Business Case Hall of Fame; when you learn from the past about cases that have succeeded and failed, you find clues as to who makes decisions

  • Decouple Reviewers from Deciders; understand that some may review a case and some may decide to fund a case and these are two different lists (though some overlap is possible)

Develop a prioritized list of your main audiences' specific priorities. Having a general idea like: they value ideas that save money is not sufficient. Be specific. What type and amount of cost reductions in what parts of the business are most important right now? Why? And keep in mind that some priorities are perennial and some are seasonal or episodic.

  • For example, a manufacturer is perennially concerned about quality control and reducing machine down-time. However, due to an episode featured in the media, there might be current pressure around worker safety. So business cases that can improve worker safety while improving quality will be especially well-received.

Comb through external and internal communications from your president or CEO. Review strategic documents such as strategic plans and codes of conduct and descriptions of current major initiatives leadership has thrown it's weight behind. Seek to piggy-back on these efforts and show how your idea advances them.

Second, besides knowing who calls the shots, you need to know who has your back. Who will be an effective, well-respected champion of your cause when you are not in the room?

Effective and well-respected Champions

You might draw out a stakeholder map and determine who is part of the decision process and who could help to influence the process. The point is not to manipulate the process but to understand better how your idea can best serve the organization. If you are involved just to advance your own agenda, you are less likely to be successful. If yours is a sincere posture to serve the organization and the greater good, your ideas will be more welcome.

Enlisting champions for your idea is a way to have a better idea. They will help to coach you and shape your idea. In his book Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull, current president of Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios, explains that at the beginning of development all of their movies suck. They all recognize that. And by recognizing that, everyone has permission to make the idea better.

It takes a kind of intellectual and emotional bravery to recognize that your idea will one day be good, maybe even be the Toy Story of its age. But right now, it probably sucks and needs work. Create a cross-functional team that can meet with you to help it grow from a fledgling idea to something that can withstand the rigors of the decision-makers.

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