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Step 3: Construct the Case

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

Finally, I get back to this....the business case for sustainability. People talk about it all the time but few know what it really means.

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

  • a good business case is a compelling story about meeting a business need

  • Prepare: we must find out how and when decisions about proposals and business cases are really made in our company

  • To make a business case on a sustainability platform, daylight hidden opportunities for innovation by using your ESRO (environmental/social risk and opportunity) assessment to identify the needs of society along with the shorter-term needs of the business

  • 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).


Step 3: Construct the Case

Successfully completing steps 1 and 2 yield a clarified focus on the business need or opportunity. Step 3 unpacks this need, turning it over and pouring out all its contents, sifting through them with the right people to develop deep understanding.

You can think of "constructing the case" much like a lawyer might put a case together in order to convict someone of a crime. If you consider the meticulous fact-finding, interviews and research the lawyer would undertake, you are beginning to understand Step 3.

Three major parts of constructing the case:

  • Gather the right team

  • Identify and clarify the business need

  • Test your assumptions

Gather the right Simon Cowell not Simon the Cat

When gathering a cross-functional team to construct a case, you need to be more like Simon Cowell, or a general manager of a sports team, than a friend. You are looking for diversity, expertise, multiple perspectives, and people who are not afraid of speaking their minds.

A few warnings:

  • Don't just recruit beneficiaries, those who stand to gain from the project as their bias will cloud your judgement

  • Look outside the company, get outside the box to think outside the box, especially to identify social and environmental risks and opportunities lurking in your blind spot. Attention: this DOES NOT mean holding a conventional public hearing or open comment period. This DOES mean involving smart, credible subject matter experts from outside the company early and often in the business case development process (as appropriate, understanding that some information must be kept confidential).

  • Don't go for a team of "power players", people you recruit because of their positional authority; it can be good to have a few but sometimes folks at their level don't really know what is happening at the ground level

  • Seek what my mentor calls "constructive dissension", sessions of open dialogue and healthy disagreement. "Talk like you are right and listen like you are wrong"

Identify and clarify the business need

This is done by studying the process and listening to the people. Lay out all the steps of whatever work process, decision-making scenario or material flow you are examining. Value chain mapping and process flow charts or maps are nearly required for this step. If you don't understand the process enough to explain it, you won't be able to improve it. Here is a good explanation, how to, and example of value chain mapping (PDF from the Social and Economic Council).

Besides the physical process and material flows, your team also must talk with and, more importantly, listen to, many people. The focus here is on constructing your case so you are trying to develop a deeper understanding of the stacked issues, interconnected jobs, and myriad opportunities.

Use the following questions to guide the discussion with your stakeholders (from HBR Guide to Building Your Business Case, 2015).:

  • Where will the solution be used? In what offi ces or facilities? In how many countries?

  • Who will be affected by the solution? A single department or the entire organization?

  • How quickly does the solution need to be in place? Will we roll it out over time or all at once?

  • How should we measure the solution’s effectiveness? Do we have a baseline that we can compare with?

Test your assumptions

After your team has constructed the case and identified some possible solutions, it's time to run some stealth projects, pilots or prototypes. You don't have to be in a traditional lab (pictured above) to run an experiment. What you are aiming for can be done almost anywhere: low cost/low risk testing of your assumptions.

From design thinking, we learn that we must architect our prototyping to test two things:

  • do we understand the problem and its root cause(s)?

  • do we have a solution?

Examples of prototyping can be sketches, quickly created models, short workshops or road shows.

  • "Just start building Design Thinking has a bias towards action: that means if you have any uncertainties about you are trying to achieve, your best bet is to just make something. Creating a prototype will help you to think about your idea in a concrete manner, and potentially allow you to gain insights into ways you can improve your idea.

  • Don’t spend too much time Prototyping is all about speed; the longer you spend building your prototype, the more emotionally attached you can get with your idea, thus hampering your ability to objectively judge its merits.

  • Remember what you’re testing for All prototypes should have a central testing issue. Do not lose sight of that issue, but at the same time, do not get so bound to it so as to lose sight of other lessons you could learn from. Source: The Interaction Design Foundation

Next....Step 4: Crunch those numbers!

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