Developing a business case takes time, perseverance and skill. There is no magic formula but you should consider the following steps throughout the process to make sure yours is a compelling case for support:
Knowing how and when decisions are made, and by whom, is a critical first step when looking to influence senior leaders. It will help you understand who you should talk to, what type of preparatory work you will need to do and when, and how long it is likely to take to get a decision. In doing so, it is important to understand formal and informal governance processes by consulting policy documents and asking for
advice from others who have brought about change in the organisation.
Understanding budget planning cycles is a key element of this process; no matter how strong your business case is, it will not progress in the absence of available funds.
Describe what success looks like and how your idea will deliver significant value for the organisation. Focus on full value creation – financial value is key but so are ‘softer’ benefits relating to reputation and relationships – now and in the longer term. Softer benefits tend to be trickier to assess but are no less important.
See the IIRC’s International IR Framework that helps to explain how value is created (or diminished) over time in organisations (see ‘Value Creation Process’ diagram on Page 13).
A related activity is to highlight any links between your organisation and key strategic priorities of the moment (e.g. student experience, research impact, commercialisation, local community, etc.). Whatever they may be, you need to be explicit about how your idea helps achieve them.
A common pitfall when developing a business case is to assume that their idea is the only one on the agenda of senior leaders. It is important to recognise that senior leaders have to juggle multiple issues, so they are likely to have limited time or ‘bandwidth’ to consider new ideas.
Once you know who the key decision-makers are, work to understand what pressures they face and what type of information appeals to them (e.g. numbers, stories, etc.). These insights will enable you to tailor the type of information in your business case and the way it is presented accordingly. You could then share a draft version of the business case with senior leaders – especially those who represent your area of work and who may be supporting the development of the business case.
There are risks associated with every new idea (though sustainability initiatives are often particularly risky because they tend to be innovative). You must understand what the risks are and explain how they will be mitigated. In doing so, you should also not underestimate the risks of inaction.
A common pitfall people may fall into is to make claims about the benefits of an idea without providing evidence to back them up. Business cases need to be supported by robust, relevant evidence to be credible to senior decision-makers.
Furthermore, should your business case be approved, the reputational consequences could be severe if it transpired that your initiative failed because it was based on poor evidence.
A key challenge here is that there is often an absence of existing evidence about the business benefits of sustainability initiatives, which means you may need to develop it from scratch. This may be difficult if resources are under pressure, but it should be considered essential to secure support and/or investment.
A related challenge is that it tends to be difficult to ‘prove’ the business benefits of sustainability on issues such as strategic partnerships, employability, student experience or risk management in supply chains because they take a long time to occur or because they are tricky to measure. If time and resources allow, you will be better placed to convey the full value creation opportunity if you can build evidence on these softer benefits.
For example, if you wanted to demonstrate the impact of learning about sustainability on employability you would need to consider surveying relevant alumni to find out what careers they went on to have and whether the learning positively influenced these outcomes. Bear in mind that you would have to wait some years for relevant students to graduate.
Ideally you would also survey a ‘control group’ to prove that there was a difference in outcomes for those who learnt about sustainability compared with those who did not. Focus groups could provide further insights into the reasons why sustainability proved so valuable to employability outcomes.
Research of this kind is costly and takes time and skill to undertake, so you may have to conclude that use of secondary evidence - such as sector surveys or academic reviews - will suffice for the case you are trying to make.
Pilot projects are a good way to test an idea and show it works, with a small amount of investment. When you come to make the case for scaling up your idea, it would be informed by the lessons from the pilot study.
Overall, you should consider what evidence you need to make a credible case for investment, what format it should be in (e.g. case studies, quantitative data, student testimonials, qualitative insights, anecdotal evidence, etc.), and how much time you will need to collect and analyse it.
Try and work out how you will measure success before you start, not once you get going. Be honest about risks and uncertainties. Quantify and estimate where you can. Most of all, focus on what is measurable and material to your organisation because you won’t be able to measure everything.
One way of accessing evidence on the business benefits of sustainability is to share information and insights with your peers in other institutions, who can be reached through networks associated with organisations like EAUC and ISCN.
Communicating a business case clearly and concisely is key to selling an idea to busy people who face competing priorities. Say what it is you want up front. Focus on the important questions and risks, as well as the things a senior leader would want to know about your area.
Use plain language (avoiding jargon that only you understand) and make any recommendations easy to action. Don’t feel the need to demonstrate your
professional or academic credentials – the quality and relevance of the proposal is
what matters, rather than hundreds of pages of information.
Finally, make sure that you check to see if senior managers use standard business
case templates or specific styles or formats for papers and, if so, make sure to use the preferred format. It may also be helpful to see if any colleagues have an example of a successful business case that you can learn from.