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088 | How to write a compelling business case & get approval for your idea, with Jo Taylor
Episode 889th June 2023 • HR Coffee Time • Fay Wallis
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If you’ve ever faced the frustration of having your ideas rejected or struggled to secure buy-in and budget for your projects, this episode of HR Coffee Time is here to help. Writing a business case can feel overwhelming but guest, Jo Taylor, shares valuable insights on how to craft a compelling one that significantly enhances your chances of success. She explains what a business case is and the importance of:

  • Simplifying
  • Starting with the “why”
  • Engaging stakeholders early on
  • Progress, not perfection

Jo also gives powerful advice on what to do if your business case is rejected.

Jo’s Book Recommendation

(Disclosure: this book link is an affiliate link which means that Fay will receive a small commission from Amazon if you make a purchase through it)


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Fay Wallis:

Welcome to HR Coffee Time. It's great to have you here. I'm your host, Fay Wallis, a career and executive coach with a background in HR, and I'm also the founder of Bright Sky Career Coaching. I've made HR Coffee Time especially for you to help you have a successful and fulfilling HR and People career without working yourself into the ground.

In this episode, you are going to meet the brilliant Jo Taylor from Let's Talk Talent who talks us through how to write a powerful business case so that you get approval for your idea and get the buy-in and budget you need to move forwards with it. Because I know how daunting writing a business case can be and how frustrating it is if you have an idea you want to get up the ground, but it's turned down by your line manager, or someone on the senior leadership team doesn't like it and says, "No". It can feel really hard not to take it personally when that happens and not to feel deflated. So this episode is here to help. Jo explains what a business case is,

how to create a brilliant one, mistakes to watch out for when you're putting one together, and also what to do if you've had your business case turned down. I hope you're going to enjoy hearing Jo's advice. I always learn so much from her whenever I speak to her. Why not pour yourself a cup of coffee or your favourite drink if you are not a coffee drinker,

get yourself comfortable and let's hear what Jo has to say.

Welcome back, Jo. It's so wonderful to have you on the show again. I can't quite believe that our first episode together was recorded a year and a half ago.

Jo Taylor:

Me, that is, time flies when you're having fun. Right, Fay?

Fay Wallis:

It does when you're having fun and also when you're busy, and I know that you have been exceptionally busy.

It's been incredible seeing all of the work that you're doing. Not only have you been producing loads of valuable free resources for their HR and People community, but you also won HR Consultancy Lead of the Year. So big congratulations.

Jo Taylor:

Thank you. Slightly embarrassing, but it is amazing to think that it's LTT's eighth year anniversary, so our birthday in August and where's those eight years gone?

Just extraordinary, but really exciting times and I'm really looking forward to chatting to you today.

Fay Wallis:

Oh, well, happy business birthday. It was Bright Sky's seventh business birthday the other day. So we're both thinking about business birthdays at the moment, and I agree. It's just weird how quickly the time seems to go away, and I just want to make sure that I do mention for everyone listening today a little bit more about your free resources because they really are incredible.

Did you want to just let everyone know what some of the resources are that you produce at Let's Talk Talent?

Jo Taylor:

Sure, well as part of our values "kind people are our kind of people", I really wanted to make sure that not only what we did for clients, so whether that's individuals, teams, and organizations, we gave back to the HR community because working in HR for 30 years, I always found at the beginning of my career, I really wasn't sure how to create, I dunno, we're gonna talk about business case today, for example, or an HR strategy or team development day.

And so what we've really thought about is what are the key questions that people want to know about, and I'm trying to answer. So we do webinars twice a month. We do WhatsApps, we do a pro bono mentoring program. We do our own podcast, YouTube videos.

We do the lot because ultimately what's important is that we invest time in our own careers and as HR professionals. I was talking about it today on a webinar that I did. We spend all the time developing others and we don't take time to develop ourselves. So our free resources are there. Please use, abuse, send them around.

We love it when they kind of get a little bit viral. But hope you really love them and do check them out on our website.

Fay Wallis:

I'll pop links in the show notes to all of your fab resources. The WhatsApp course I think are brilliant.

I had never done a WhatsApp course until I have done one of your ones, Jo. They're absolutely amazing. But having talked about lots of your free resources, of course you're about to create another one today with this podcast episode, so I better move us along to the main part of our time together today.

You are very kindly going to talk to us about building a business case, and I thought a good starting point would be to go right back to basics and ask you, okay, so for anyone listening who knows, they have to build a business case, but they're feeling a bit wobbly about it. A foundational step, what is a business case?

Jo Taylor:

Well, a bit like I say in HR strategy, a business case is a plan on a page. Basically, it's telling people why you need to do something, what you need to do. How you need to do it, when and what money basically you might need. When people think about a business case, they think that it's all just about cost.

So they think about going to a CFO, or CEO and saying, "I need another 12 people in my team", for example, or, "I need to invest in a new HR system". Now that is important, don't get me wrong, but for me, a business case is really thinking about the exam question that you're trying to answer. You know, Simon Sinek always says, "start with why". A business case starts with "why".

Why is it important, and what are the outputs and the outcomes that you want to deliver? So they can be hard, tangible metrics. So when you think about outputs, that could be KPIs. So how are you gonna measure the success and in what timeframe? So that's, you know, if it's a depreciation of a piece of technology, when are you gonna realize that, you know, depreciation?

If it's more about culture, how are you gonna measure that through great place to work, for example, or you having more interesting conversations about your people. So think about hard metrics in terms of KPIs, but think about outcomes as well and build that into your business case. And we have a model that we use, the triangle model that we use when we think about HR strategy. And it starts with that exam question. What's the burning platform? So that could be increasing diversity, for example.

It could be thinking about your next generation leaders. It might be investing in an apprenticeship or graduate program. And when you think about that and you level that up, what you are trying to do in any business case is answer that exam question first and foremost. But secondly, think about how that enables you as an organization to get, keep and grow brilliant people.

So if you are thinking about get, keep, and grow great people, the business case becomes how you're gonna do that.

Fay Wallis:

Which of course is a foundation of any great People department, isn't it? It's all about the people, getting them, growing them and keeping them. Definitely. So before I start to ask you even more about creating a fabulous business case, I think it would be really helpful for people to know where do people tend to go wrong with this?

So what are some of the mistakes that you've seen people make when it comes to creating a business case?

Jo Taylor:

So I think there are a number of mistakes that people make when trying to build a business case. I think number one is people get fixated on the cost and they start with the cost rather than thinking about the why.

The cost is gonna be important and any CFO or CEO is probably gonna flick to that page and understand how much it's gonna cost or how much resource you might need. But I think it's about telling a compelling story. Think about the story and how you're building that story to get to a no-brainer in terms of cost.

And when you're thinking about cost, if that is something that's gonna be really important, can you give a number of options? So can you give like a bronze, silver, and gold option? So the pros and cons related to that. So I remember when I was going to do a restructure in my talent team, and particularly my

talent acquisition team, my resourcing team, and I wanted to move from an in-house to an outhouse model. Now, my C E O and my C P O at the time were obsessed with cost, and I spent ages. Fay, I can't tell you literally, and I'm no whizz on Excel and pivot tables and all that. I spent weeks creating these amazing pivot tables.

But what I failed to do was tell them the story. Why, they were going, well, what's it gonna make a difference? You know what timeframe are you gonna do it in? What resources do you need? And I completely missed the mark. So I had to go back to the drawing board and I, I lost three weeks of my life.

I'm never gonna get back. I think the second is that, in that example, I probably failed to ask what the stakeholders wanted from that business case. So I didn't ask the CEO, I didn't ask the CFO I didn't actually engage with any stakeholders, and I think that's really important. So I sort of went into my little tunnel.

Because I knew I was the subject matter expert and I knew what we needed. But by engaging people really early on in that "why" you can get their idea of what some of the questions that you might have coming up perhaps in when you are having to present it to an exec. So that engagement, I think a lot of people fail to do that.

And then the third. Is, and I think the most important is that we overcomplicate it, we create 20 page business cases, and anyone that knows me knows that I like to keep it simple. And I always talk about it in, in whenever we're creating a pitch. What's your money shot? What is the page in that business case that is gonna literally blow them away?

It's like a no-brainer. The one that if they look at nothing else, never read anything else, is gonna tell them the why, the what, the how, and the how much ultimately. And I think a lot of people spend a lot of time on the preamble and they lose people on the way, and it becomes really worthy and it becomes 20, 25, 50.

I've even seen business cases of 50 pages. So I think those are my three areas that I've really seen and a live example of something that I, I did in, my career. But it's really tricky because I think a bit like when you hear the word "strategy", everyone thinks it's got to be perfect.

And actually in a lot of global organizations there is a strict process and probably a procurement process sometimes around building a business case, especially for IT or even for partners like myself, you know, coming in and a procurement exercise, they'd have had to have created a business case to get to talk to consultancies like myself.

Fay Wallis:

That's actually one question I had, Jo, because as you were talking and thank you so much for sharing that real life example, I think it's so helpful for everyone to be able to hear that and I'm sure it will resonate. And when you talked about seeing business cases that are 50 pages long, people won't have been able to see this cuz obviously we're just recording audio.

But I did a huge like grimace thinking, oh no. Can you imagine someone putting a 50 page document on your desk and thinking, when am I going to have time to read that? But I can absolutely see why it happens. But building on this point about the fact that sometimes there has to be a business case even to start exploring what the solution might be, or even to bring in some expert outside help.

I think that can be a really tricky point for people, and it would be great to hear your advice around that, because really I suppose you're putting forward a business case saying, look Let's say for example, cuz this is quite a challenging one, our culture really needs some work. We don't think the culture's great here, but we don't really know how to fix it ourselves.

So we're going to have to bring in outside help. How can you do a business case for that? Being able to pin down culture anyway feels like a difficult thing to really get your hands around and then say, we don't know the solution, but we are going to need some money. It would be great to hear your advice around that point.

Jo Taylor:

Well, interestingly enough, we've just finished a piece of work, which was exactly that, and it was through an education institution who obviously at the moment don't have a huge amount of money, but their new director came in and there'd been a few grievances in particular around ED&I, and they were losing talent, so they had a retention question.

They also had a reputation problem. In being able to recruit people because some of this have been quite loud unfortunately in the media. So they had a burning platform that they were able to commission, and the reason that the business case that they put together was we should not be doing this ourselves because we need an external, independent, neutral third party.

And. Our people will want to speak to someone neutrally because they may feel that our HR team, for example, may be part of the problem. So actually sometimes it really helps to bring it outside people around culture because you can hold the mirror up as a consultancy, which you could never do internally.

And when I worked in house, ok, eight years ago, that's where I used consultancy. And I was able to build the business case because actually there were real markers and that's where data comes in. And I think when you're building a business case whether you're looking at hard data like retention, engagement, diverse, ED&I, data it is important to look at that.

So where, when culture is so broad, you're right Fay. It is completely broad. There's always a reason why. And I think actually, to be honest with you, it's much easier to make a business case for something around culture than it is for a piece of technology that is about a process. One of our values is "the best is yet to come".

And so I'm an eternal optimist that we're going into a new world of working and that actually the pandemic has had a really seismic shift on the way that we value people. And I do think CEOs are waking up to that, but they're going to be less interested in a piece of technology because it doesn't have an output.

But they're going be fixated if they're the right CEO on their people, cuz people are their biggest asset and we know whether you believe in the great attraction or the great resignation or quiet quitting, whatever term you want use, people are choosing to leave. So I don't think there is an argument anymore for a CEO to sit back and not commission something.

However, you might have to go back, and I've had to do this a number of times. You might have to prove it by doing it yourself once to not to get to the right result. So sometimes you have to kind of, I always think that it's about the journey. And it's not necessarily getting to the journey in the quickest space of time.

It's sometimes playing the game and realizing that if your CEO so against it, then trying something and going around a different angle. And that's what I think makes someone a great, you know, we talked about it on Monday recently around HR superpowers, that kind of really strategic business partnering.

That's what makes, separates the good from the great in, in my opinion.

Fay Wallis:

That's so interesting. It's funny, I had absolutely no idea what you were going to say when it came to advice around this Jo, and I hadn't thought for a moment about the fact well give it a try yourself and if it doesn't work, then again you've actually got more evidence to go forwards with.

There's so much you've just shared with me that I could pick up on that I think would be really helpful for anyone listening today. One thing in particular that really stood out was about engaging with stakeholders early, and I think that is linked as well to this feeling that sometimes we have to get things perfect before we put them in front of anyone. I completely blame school for this, where we go to school and you're rewarded for doing the absolute best possible version of your work. And of course, that's drummed into us all the way up until we leave. So when you go into the workplace, it's quite hard to lose that thinking.

But actually the best work comes from having tested stuff out first and asked for opinions, and you are so much more likely to get buy-in from other people if they've had a chance to shape it right at the early stages. But I know that I've worked with some people who have got quite upset or frustrated if they have a vision for what they want and they're really, really passionate about being able to put this business case forward, but they are coming up against a brick wall and the other person, whether that's the COO or someone else is just saying, "no, I just think you're completely wrong.

That's not important at all". So it would be great to hear if you have any other examples of good ways of going about that stakeholder engagement, especially when you're hearing the word "No".

Jo Taylor:

I can really empathize with what you're saying, Fay. And the, the phrase that springs to mind that I use a lot, and I have to think about it in my own business, is "progress, not perfection."

And I really think that resonates with what you are saying. We've all felt passionate about something, but we've got knock backs from, you know not getting the job that we want or , not getting that piece of technology over the line or project not landing. I think it's how we deal with those setbacks that's really important. So sometimes I think when someone says, "No", It's understanding what, what the "no" means and asking those questions. So what is it about it that you are not comfortable with? Is it the money? Is it the time? Is it, have you got other priorities? And really in a way, putting a coaching hat on and asking some really open questions and understanding what lies beneath.

Rather than in a way, which we all do and I've done, is sometimes take it personally that it's something to do with me. It's never about you. It's more about what's going on for them. So a lot of CEOs will say "No" because they're getting pressure from the board to do something else, but they may not have articulated that and you may have missed those cues and clues along the way. It may be that actually the business is about to pivot. And so investing in a piece of technology at the moment is not a priority cuz there's gonna be a big transformation. So I think it's really understanding not only the business context, and that's why I always say when you build an HR strategy, you should build it with the business in mind and the people along.

So it becomes kind of a mutual construction. So that when you do get that, it may be "no, but not right now". So I'm having that conversation internally at the moment. So one of the things that we were thinking about, you know, being frank, was we've just rebranded. We've made a tweak on some of our brand and gone a bit more colourful.

One of the things that we were thinking about was actually do we then do a complete website refresh? And we've got quotes in, and I'm sitting there as the CEO and I'm hearing it from my marketing director, Charlie, who's fantastic. And, we're having a conversation and suddenly he, he says to me, "Actually, Jo, I don't think we should do this at the moment.

I think actually we should...", and I really, really want to do it right. I'm really, really eager to do it. And he's turned around and he said, "Look, I've really thought about this. It's gonna cost 20, 25,000 pounds. Right. I think we've got better ways of using that money". And it was really interesting because normally it's me that does that, but he was managing right, so he was building a business.

He had, he came to that conversation, hadn't built a business case, you know, quite frankly. Wanted that money, wants to do the work, but realizes that ultimately we're better off to wait for six to nine months to do it. We don't need to do it now. It's not a priority, but actually to grow as a business.

We need to invest more in our consultancy our delivery. So a business case doesn't have to be something that you write down. It can be a conversation that we're having. What he did brilliantly was he put himself in my shoes and thought, "Right, actually, wouldn't that be better here? Because that's what she wants to do?" And that's why I think it's really important as HR professionals to start to put ourselves in the shoes of ultimately our customer.

So when we get the knock back, we understand why and it doesn't become about us. It becomes about the wider context.

Fay Wallis:

So much brilliant advice in there, Jo, and it's great to hear that real life example. Well, I will look forward to seeing the new website when you do decide it's the right time to invest in it, but it looks pretty fantastic to me as it is now.

So, I think Charlie's probably right. It's definitely more than good enough for the moment. And so just recapping some of what we've covered then. There's the idea of engaging with stakeholders early. Really trying to understand their perspective and the context as well. Don't just focus on cost. Make sure that you are telling a story.

Include things like timeframe and resources and data, all really important things. But probably what I think is going to be more reassuring to everyone than anything else is what you have just said, which is that a business case can just be a conversation to start with.

You haven't got to go away and put together a 50 page document on your own to make it all perfect. You can actually just start with that simple conversation.

Jo Taylor:

It's absolutely right and I think, you know, I think. Every context and every business is different. Some businesses we're working one at the moment, you know, is very regulated.

So it needs to be, much more paper trail and, and you know, more accountable. Other businesses like ours will be much more agile and you'll have a conversation with your CEO and there'll be some businesses that are in the middle. A bit of both. But as HR professionals, I think it's important to realize that really like an HR strategy, this is a plan of what's gonna change.

So always think about the end in mind and work your way back.

Fay Wallis:

And how important do you think it is that they really have got a vision for what that end is going to look like? Is it okay to start off with an idea, sort of like what I was saying earlier, where you realize actually you're going to have to bring a consultancy in to help you potentially.

Jo Taylor:

I think you have to know what the end goal is. Yeah. I think if it's wooly, you can't build a business case, so I think you need to know the exam question that you're trying to answer. And how you're gonna measure it as just pure fundamentals. And once you've done that, then you can construct the story along the way.

But if you don't know what's gonna change as the result, then if you are talking to a CFO, You can't justify any, you know, cost. If you're trying to hire new people, what service level is it going to be different as a, as a result of it? How are you gonna drive better engagement? If it's a piece of technology, how's it gonna drive the overall employee experience?

I think it's really important to know the end in mind. I always, whenever. I put anything together for a client whether that's, a management and leadership piece or you know, a culture, I sort of say, what, how are you gonna judge the success of this in 3, 6, 9 months? And that, in effect, becomes your end point.

It takes a while sometimes to coach that out. But that's where, as we talked about, Fay, the stakeholder engagement. If you get your stakeholders to tell you, then you're fine, aren't you? You are replaying it back to them when you're being super smart. Cause you're actually saying, well, you told me this.

This is what you want. I can deliver it. This is what I need to do it. And this is what's worked in the past and this is the data. So it's a no-brainer. And you'll get that tick in the box.

Fay Wallis:

Brilliant. Well, I really hope that so many people today who are listening are going to be able to go away and get those ticks in their boxes and get their business cases approved.

Although you have already given us a book recommendation once before, as we have you back, I would love to hear what your book recommendation is for us today. The question that, you know, I ask pretty much every guest who comes on the show,

Jo Taylor:

so I'm reading at the moment "The Art of Rest". By Dr. Claudia Hammond.

She does a podcast I think on Radio Four, and I heard it. It was I think she was on Women's Hour and I, I heard it and it's something that I really struggle with in identifying my version of rest. One of my saboteurs is restlessness. So I kind of look at it from a sort of my inner mentor sort of talking to me.

And I just love this book. I was reading it on holiday and it has 10 different recipes for rest. And my favorite one is walking, so it gives me permission. But what I love about it is that it doesn't name and shame. So, because some people like to rest by watching tv, for example, I don't find that restful in, in that sense, or listening to music or whatever it is.

It gives you permission to own your version of rest. And I think that's really important for me in my continual journey.

Fay Wallis:

That sounds like a wonderful recommendation. I haven't heard of that one before and I. Know that this is very true, that it's something you actively work on because we actually talked about it quite a lot in our very first episode together.

So I will make sure that I put a link to our original episode in the show notes as well. Or of course, for anyone listening, please do go and just hop back and you'll be able to hear Jo talk about that in a little bit more detail because I think a lot of what Jo says in the previous interview, even though we were talking about

succession planning. Before we got to the succession planning bit, we ended up talking about wellbeing for quite a long time because as everyone knows I say on the podcast every single week, it's here to help you have a successful and fulfilling career. Without working yourself into the ground. And I know that for so many people listening, they're so dedicated and hardworking.

There's a real risk of the burning yourself into the ground. So thank you. That sounds like a very relevant and helpful book. All that leaves me to ask you now is for anyone listening who would like to know more about you and the wonderful work that Let's Talk Talent does, what is the best way of them getting in touch with you or finding out more?

Jo Taylor:

So it's really simple. You can email me, I like to talk. So give me an email and we'll arrange a chat. No sales intended at all. Just if you wanna chat. And know more - happy to do that. You can check out our website. We're on LinkedIn, we're on Twitter, we've got a YouTube channel.

So there's loads and different ways in which you can get in contact and know more about the business, but there's nothing better than having a chat with me. So if you wanna have a chat, I'm always open to that.

Fay Wallis:

So all that really does now leave me to say is a huge thank you Jo.

It's been so lovely getting to see you again and I really appreciate you sharing your wealth of experience and expertise with the HR Coffee Time audience.

Jo Taylor:

Pleasure. Thank you so much for having me, Fay.

Fay Wallis:

If you've enjoyed today's episode, please can I ask you for a small favour? I'd be hugely grateful if you could do two things for me. Firstly, if you could share the podcast with a friend who you think will find it interesting and useful, that would be brilliant. And secondly, if you could rate and review HR coffee time for me on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, that would be wonderful. It makes such a difference in helping the show get discovered by more people, and I would love to help as many HR and People professionals as possible with this free podcast. Thank you so much, and I look forward to being back again next Friday with the next episode.




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