What 'make the business case' really means

Picture this:

You have a team of enthusiastic and capable developers.

But the code base stinks and everyone knows it.

The team wants to make changes. Big changes.

You have felt their pain first hand (even though you may have been partially responsible for the stinky code base in the first place). You are convinced that change needs to be made to allow your team to be more effective.

But you know that taking their complaints unfiltered to your manager is not a good move.

They will just tell you to ‘make the business case’ for improvements before they will even consider approving a big initiative with no immediate user benefits.

But what does ‘make the business case’ mean? Demonstrate how doing the work will affect company profitability? How it will impact some pre-determined KPIs our outcome metrics? Or is improving harder-to-measure considerations like staff morale a valid goal in its own right?

For me this is a test of trust. ‘Make the business case’ usually doesn’t mean ‘I don’t trust your judgement so create me a spreadsheet that proves that this will have a 10% net benefit impact on bottom line within 2 years’.

I think it’s more often ‘I trust you somewhat so me that you’re not doing this because of self interest alone’ (e.g. wanting to learn a new stack, bored of the work, rebelling against existing power structures, getting your team off your back).

To refer back to last week’s discussion of the Priority of Constituents, another way to put this would be ‘describe clearly what the anticipated benefits are to other constituents further up the priority chain than yourselves.’

For most product teams, those constituents will include: other groups in the organisation, the business as a whole, shareholders and investors, customers, end users, partners, etc.

As the W3Cs document states:

Of course, it is preferred to make things better for multiple constituencies at once.

So, if you can ‘make a business case’ that does that, it’s more likely to be approved.

Want to make big changes to your product? How will it improve the situation for other stakeholders beyond developers?

All the best,

– Jim

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