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Missing: one project business case

Adeline Teoh
July 6, 2011

True or false: A business case is the document required to attain funding for the project. False! The business case is the project, say TOP founders Alexandra Chapman and Jed Simms. Then why does the business case too often go missing in action once the project begins?

Many examinations into why projects fail become an intriguing exploration of human behaviour, dysfunctional organisations and the sometimes delusional minds of project stakeholders. Chapman and Simms, creators of engineered thinking process TOP (Totally Optimized Projects), are much more pragmatic about why projects fail: organisations often don’t even know what the project is and project managers don’t know why they are doing it.

“One of the project managers that we had recently said: ‘We spend an enormous amount of time as project managers working out what we have to do. This is the first time I’ve ever been on a project where we’ve actually said ‘why are we doing this?’,” relays Chapman. “In answering that question, they’re able to frame what they want out of the project so they can then do it.”

It may be an obvious point, but it is one step that both founders have often found missing in projects they’ve consulted on in their respective careers. Simms recounts the results of an analysis they conducted a few years ago, where they asked each organisation if it had a “clear definition of what success looked like”—of the 59 projects studied, none had such a definition.

“They all knew what they were doing but they didn’t know what success looked like at the end states. That’s critical,” he remarks. “We use the example of the brick-making factory and the factory making bricks.”

TOP client Boral had trouble putting its new factories into commission. Simms says this is because it focused on projects that gave them a brick-making factory when what it really needed was an operational factory that made bricks and therefore earned income for the company.

“They changed the specification to a factory making bricks to 60% of capacity. It changed the project because the people on the project knew that if they took any shortcuts to come in on time and on budget, they’d have to live with them,” he says. “You’re actually focused on where you’re trying to get to.”

Business case versus project cost

A project’s business case needs to be tied to business success. This allows organisations to identify the essential parts of the project and the parts it can jettison, which makes the project more cost effective if it only focuses on doing projects, or parts of projects, that deliver business value.

“Why would you do a project if it’s not going to yield business value? Look at the history of projects in organisations and even the primary measure of what a project is about is the business case document. In most cases there’s almost nothing about the project value and an enormous amount about what the project costs are,” Chapman states.

“When we look at business cases in organisations, [they’re] deficient in the very document that is supposed to say what is the value proposition, which is ‘what is the value of this, and how can we get what we want out of it for the most optimised cost?'”

Adeline Teoh
Adeline Teoh is the editor and publisher of She has more than a decade of publishing experience in the fields of business and education, and has specialised in writing about project management since 2007.
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