What's the difference between an IT project and bungee jumping?
In both cases, you're stepping into the void; but, with bungee jumping, the risk of something going wrong is vanishingly small.
Technology projects don't have to go wrong. Oxfam, for example, recently moved its online presence into the cloud, reducing costs and improving service levels, without any major hitch. The Open University, meanwhile, successfully manages one of the biggest bodies of student data in the UK.
In both cases, they are succeeding because they are building from a firm foundation - they have a solid business case for what they are doing.
How does one set about building an effective business case? Courses are available on the subject - I run one myself - but these are the underlying principles.
A good business case does three things. First, it creates a clear vision for the project. If members of the team know what they are supposed to be doing and why, then there's a good chance they will be able to do it. Too many teams act at cross-purposes because they have a fuzzy idea of what they are trying to achieve.
Second, it helps you build meaningful support for the project. Technology projects often bring together people from diverse camps within an organisation. The marketing, sales, design and IT functions all need to be involved. If the management chain within each group understands the rationale for the project, then they can support it effectively. Without that understanding, it is too easy to push their people in divergent directions.
Third, it helps the project manager to make good decisions as the project proceeds. Project teams need to make trade-offs as they build systems. They trade time for functionality, cost for scalability and reliability and so on. The business case tells the project manager where the biggest benefits are coming from and, hence, how best to balance these trade-offs.
DOS AND DON'TS
- Do Get the numbers right
Demonstrate that you understand the costs and financial benefits, making it easier for people to back you. More important, it forces you to be clear about your goals.
- Don't Focus solely on numbers
Many people equate business cases with ROI calculations. ROI is part of the picture, but capture the softer aspects too - how will customer experience be improved, for example?
- Do Build a clear vision
This is the core of the case. What opportunities are you chasing? How will you do so? How will the organisation benefit?
- Don't Leave it in a drawer
A business case evolves. You learn as the project progresses - about customers, technology and the team. Reflect this back into the case, so you can keep making good decisions.
- Do Socialise it
The goal is to win people's support. Talk to them about what they are trying to achieve. Incorporate their feedback. Make it easy for them to support you.