May 26, 2023

Changing their mind is a form of death


Here are the five words that make the blood drain from my face.

Show me the business case.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of going through this process before, here’s how it works.

Business cases provide justification for undertaking a certain task, project or program. They’re a formal way of saying to a skeptical team, here’s why these resources should be used to support his business need.

These are the expected benefits, options considered, potential risks, and the rationale for the preferred solution.

As you can tell from my dusting of sarcasm, making business cases is one of my least favorite activities. In fact, I’ll take the irony to a whole new level, and make a business case against making business cases.

First of all, there are thousands of products and even entire organizations that had very strong business cases for their existence. These projects were thoroughly reviewed by brilliant investors with billions of dollars.

And yet, the vast majority of these initiatives still failed. Entrepreneur magazine reported that one quarter of startups fail within their first year, half of the remaining fail within five years, and thirty percent of the remaining in the last ten years.

Clearly businesses cases are not reliable predictors of success.

They certainly help mitigate failure. But in business there are no guarantees, only probabilities. Until artificial intelligence ushers in the singularity, we can expect that not to change.

Secondly, in any organization, it’s virtually impossible to directly attribute any financial outcome to a single individual investment. Success is a multitouch condition.

Many factors are always at work, some of which are either invisible or immeasurable. Even if your marketing operations team has water tight plumbing in the backend of your tech stack, there’s no way to know with a high degree of certainty what actually worked.

Did our awesome new holiday email drip campaign push this exact lead down the funnel and convert into fifty thousand dollars of annual recurring revenue?

Maybe. That’s the best we can hope for, maybe.

Look, I’ve built plenty of business cases in my career, and I’m grateful that I went through the process to reality check my brain farts.

But very few, if any of the business cases I made were ever approved. Which may speak to my lack of detail orientation, impractical optimism and inability to crunch data.

But I still believe that there is a fundamental flaw in process itself. In my experience, it’s going to take three to six months to write a business case and get the approved funding, only to have one of the asshole manager on the team refuse to install the new software because it’s not an approved vendor.

Sisyphus, eat your heart out.

Now for the next aspect of business cases I have a problem with.

They tend to be big, lumbering documents preaching about things that are only valid in a single moment and quickly outdated.

It’s funny, there are organizations with team members whose sole job function is to build business cases, rather than actually execute and manage real work.

They spend all their time getting their assumptions and estimates to be precise enough, only to be rejected at every turn. It’s the great paradox of innovation. Companies are spending time and money trying to decide if they should spend more time and money.

The corporate hamster wheel of death.

I once worked at an innovation agency where I was on the pitch team. All I did was make business cases. My job was creating imaginary work for imaginary clients, all day.

Not exactly a career highlight, and it’s unfortunate how pervasive this trend is within the corporate world.

Number four on my list of problems with business cases is, they’re used more as a cover your ass exercise, than a tool of real value. Managers demand you justify your initiatives because they’re scared of looking foolish and losing their jobs.

That’s why approval process is such a colossal pain in the arse. Building spreadsheets, designing decks, chasing down executives, presenting to a room of crossed armed managers, getting sponsors to commit, ensuring the risk averse incumbents feel comfortable with the numbers, all these obstacles are put there for a reason.

Nobody wants to be responsible for making uneconomical decisions.

And to be fair, managers are not the only ones covering their asses. I think back to all my desperate attempts to create executive reassurance, and here’s what my business cases process was.

Stick a bunch of made up numbers into a spreadsheet, cross my fingers for approval, and then hope by the time I launch the project, either nobody will notice that my predictions were false, nobody is able to track the poor performance back to me, or I’ve already moved on to another job.

In short, pray they don’t make a business case against my business case.

The fifth reason business cases are overrated is perhaps the simplest of all, so forgive the hyperbole here.

Nobody knows anything. We’re just guessing. About pretty much everything. Uncertainty only compounds over time. And our unrealistic assumptions grow bigger.

Listen, might I remind you, in the past two thousand years, human beings have unsuccessfully predicted the apocalypse over three hundred times. Three hundred times. We rare notoriously lousy at predicting what’s going to happen.

Particularly when it comes to business. We’re just so limited in our views because we assume that future value can be accurately predicted at the beginning.

Sure, I get that business cases make us feel safe, powerful and in control. Between you, me and the internet, I enjoy deluding myself as much as the next guy. If there’s anyone who knows how to spin a crystalline web of bullshit inside his own mind, it’s me

But anytime a manager responds to a new idea with, show me the business case, all that screams to me is, this person has already rejected the project, and no spreadsheet will make them budge.

Because changing their mind is a form of death, and people don’t want to die.

Whew. That’s one hell of a business case against business cases.

The question now is, so what’s the alternative?

It’s simple. Learn to build incrementally. Learn about customers and their needs as you ship things. Instead of cranking out the whole enchilada in one big bang, start a creative process that prevents teams from being overwhelmed.

Approach your problems iteratively. Be testable, so nobody has to wait.

Most importantly, accept that you don’t know everything from the start, and that don’t really need to. You simply need have an idea that you can gradually develop out over time.

In conclusion, let’s turn to a parable from the immortal business philosopher. Dilbert tells his boss, we only have two people on the third floor. Let’s move them to our empty cubes here and sublet the space.

His boss replies, write a business case with all the risks and business drivers, and I’ll consider it.

To which he says, actually I changed my mind. We shouldn’t do anything.

And his boss says, I need a business case for that too.

What if false reassurance worked like a drug, blurring your organization’s awareness of its real problems?