Have you ever gone to a training session, made lots of notes, then done nothing with them when you returned to work? That’s what happened after I completed an online business case writing course back in August last year.
When I finally got around to reviewing my notes on a rainy Sunday morning I realised a lot of the disciplines of business case writing can also serve us well when writing reports. These include:
- digging deep to identify the root of a problem rather than focusing on the symptoms
- testing the viability of an idea with an open mind, rather than to persuade others that our initial idea is the best option
- assessing enough, but not too many options
- ensuring strategic alignment with the organisation’s vision
- using the writing process to gain agreement with stakeholders.
Digging deep – finding the root of the problem
Defining the cause of a problem can be the hardest part of the whole process, but it’s important to do this early on because it will guide everything else.
The New Zealand Transport Agency has prepared a practice note on Root cause analysis in business case development. One way to get beyond problems and consequences to the underlying cause is to start with the initial problem statement and ask ‘why’ up to five times. This often involves moving beyond a problem with a physical asset to identifying a process or system that needs to change, which will lead to a different solution.
It’s better to have more than one potential solution to the problem to choose from, but not too many. These options should be markedly different from each other, and shouldn’t include options that are not realistic due to time or money constraints.
If, after completing your options assessment, there is more than one viable option, you can consider including a second best option. This gives your decision makers another choice, if the preferred option does not appeal for some reason.
Testing the viability of an idea
A business case (and a report) is a vital test to decide if a project is viable. It can save an organisation a lot of money if it leads to a realisation that an option is doomed to failure. It is therefore important to remain open to this conclusion, and avoid being overly focused on persuading councillors and other stakeholders that your initial idea is the best solution.
Showing strategic alignment
A strong theme of the online business case training is the need for alignment — which means there is a clear line of sight from the top (vision and mission) through to the objectives of the current proposal, the strategy to achieve it, and the action plan.
It is therefore worth examining these different elements in detail, even if they aren’t explicitly discussed in your report, rather than just plopping the most relevant community outcome into the required section your report. (Although, if it’s a council report, you’ll probably have to do that as well.)
The vision is about connecting what’s happening now, with the future — where the organisation wants to be in 5–10 years’ time. It may be that the vision of the whole organisation is too high level to specifically guide your project (and you need to establish a more specific one) but you will still need to ensure your project doesn’t contradict the organisation-wide vision.
The mission is about why the organisation exists, and where it is now, the range of services it offers to who, and how it does it. The mission helps to keep an organisation focused.
In the case of councils, strategic objectives are likely to relate to at least one of the four well-beings (social, economic, environmental or cultural well-being of communities). Objectives need to have at least one performance indicator, that is precise, unambiguous, available at reasonable cost, and quantifiable. You need to be clear on who is responsible for collection of this information. Access to baseline information related to the performance is also important, in order to be able to measure progress.
A strategy outlines the timeline and allocation of resources to make the vision a reality.
The action plan is a list of who is doing what, when. You need to be able to trace the vision and mission in the action plan. Importantly, if there’s no alignment, it can lead to lack of executive support and cooperation by others in the organisation.
Communicating with stakeholders
The RACI model is an interesting variation on the ideas I discussed in last month’s article on community engagement planning.
R = responsible (the person or people who perform the work)
A = accountable (the person who is accountable for the work being completed)
C = consulted (subject matter experts)
I = informed (those stakeholders affected by the project, who need to be kept informed).
The online business case training recommends using this RACI framework to determine who to communicate with during the writing process. It makes sense to collaborate with those responsible or accountable for the work, and to consult with subject experts (particularly on the options assessment criteria and their relative weighting). Providing stakeholders with a copy of your draft report is an easy way to share your thinking (and to seek feedback if you choose to consult rather than just inform them).
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