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Why “show me a business case” is the worst thing you can say to a creative employee (and what to say instead)

When it comes to business, asking someone to show you a business case is almost like a greeting. It starts and ends conversations. The statement alone feels productive and gives you the sense that you’re a ‘real’ entrepreneur. But here’s the thing: asking creative employees to “show you a business case” is one of the worst things you can say. 

Managing creative employees requires a lot more than telling them to prove every idea to you. Beyond the management principles of it all, being too focused on the business case puts you in a bad position to be innovative. Read on to learn why. 

Why “show me a business case” doesn’t work

Why “show me a business case” doesn’t work

When you ask for a business case, you’re typically asking for some level of proof that the idea is going to work. Or, perhaps, you’re looking to end the conversation and you want to give your employee productive work to do. Both happen frequently in business (and, sometimes, ending a conversation is the best use of everyone’s time). However, simply asking for a business case without context – and even with it in most situations – won’t help the employee develop a stunning idea plan. 

Despite the many business case templates out there, one of the biggest issues in assigning a business case is that there’s no one way to do it. The more complex the product or idea, the more complex the business case would need to be. In all cases though, for projects big and small, there are three key reasons why asking for a business case is bound to flop.

It’s busy work

business cases are busy work

Filling out templates is not how you want your creative people spending their days. Further, it’s not even an effective use of time. Since new ideas rarely have the research to validate if it’s good or not, asking employees to fill out templates with sections for market research, trends, and other data is ineffective. This becomes especially true since many business case templates are built for traditional service businesses. If you’re operating in the tech space or have a different services model than the norm, many templates simply won’t work for your business. 

When you do focus on the business case, you require employees to think in terms of everything already existing, not new ideas they can bring to light. Creative employees are looking into the future to build new products and services. This becomes difficult, if not impossible, when doing a “business case” that only looks at what already exists. 

It looks in the wrong direction

look forward, not backward

Similar to looking at what already exists, business cases look backward to project forward. Each section involves some form of history writing – past trends, suggested future trends based on the past, etc. – and leverages what already happened to predict what will happen. When you’re designing something new, you need a system that is firmly grounded in testing for the future. You need to take one step, then take another, not look back to see how big previous steps were. 

Sending employees down the path of corporate history is an interesting exercise, but not helpful to cultivate innovation. History can provide useful anecdotes or stories to help you in some small ways. It can also help in terms of knowing what definitely didn’t work for the company. However, it’s not the best place to start a discussion about new, innovative ideas. 

It asks for the wrong data

a business case looks at the wrong data for analyzing creative ideas

Business cases ask for market sizes. They ask for past revenues to project future revenues. And they ask for potential revenue from an idea. While revenues and market sizes are crucial for an idea to become fully realized, asking for this data at the beginning is useless. When you have a brand new idea that solves a customer problem, projecting revenue is difficult, if not impossible. 

In particular, asking for market sizes to estimate future revenues further assumes your ideas have nothing new to them. If the idea has new elements to it that make it hard to price or estimate purchase intent, then this data is unhelpful. Further, in a world of rapidly changing customers needs and wants, spending tons of time estimating revenues before you figure out if anyone wants the new offering could put you in a position where no one wants what you have by the time you get to market. 

What to ask for instead of a business case

What to ask for instead of a business case

Asking for a business case is the fancy way of asking people to prove their idea has merit before the company invests time and resources into it. This premise is smart – companies don’t have unlimited resources to pour into every employee idea. So when an employee comes up with an idea, asking for a business case sounds like the right idea. 

Instead, though, ask questions that dig into the practicality of the idea, not just the feasibility of the idea. Business cases are good at estimating how feasible something it. The market is roughly $X dollars big. There are roughly Y potential customers, particularly DEF company. Those kinds of things. However, in the modern era companies need practical ideas – the ones that can launch and immediately provide value. From there, the ideas can grow. 

What value does the idea provide?

ask for an idea's value - who it serves

Instead of asking for market size and market opportunity, make sure the idea clearly signals who it serves. This immediately helps you understand if the idea is for new sales, new operational efficiencies, client retention, or something else. Further, you learn specifically what it’s supposed to offer. This could be a new feature that helps users understand the site better. Or it could be a new way to deliver your services so you’re more efficient and clients get more value. 

Whatever it is, the value must be specific in order to be helpful. You need to know precisely what you will do, for whom, and why. A common way to get this information is through a bit of business mad-libbing. 

Try it out: “[Insert idea here] will make [kind of customer]’s lives better because it [positive verb – solves, addresses, adds, etc.] [positive outcome – efficiency, security, peace of mind, etc.] through [methods you will use to provide the value].”

How will you measure success?

identify the metric(s) you'll use to measure success

Where the previous question got the demographic information – who you’re serving, how, and why – this question digs at the metrics you’ll use to figure out if the idea was a roaring success. Let’s say the idea was a new service delivery method that would be more efficient both internally and for clients. Naturally, your metric is “efficiency,” but you need to define what that means in terms of this idea. Is it shortening your project timeline by 10%? Is it increasing customer satisfaction on feedback surveys? Is it something else entirely? 

Figuring out your metric is important because it becomes your guide and incentive. The success of the project is based on this number, so it has to be something holistic enough to make sure that areas don’t fall through the cracks. For example, if you choose a metric of increased customer satisfaction, there’s theoretically a situation where employees could lie to clients in order to get them happy in the short term. You get your “success metric” but the project likely won’t succeed long term. This is where company values come in most of the time, but it’s always something to pay attention to.

What can you test to see if the idea is going to stick?

run tests to see if your idea works

The biggest problem with business cases is that they are all done via research and projections. You aren’t sure if the idea will work until you’ve done it. With the changing pace of customer needs, this model won’t work anymore. Once you know who you’re serving, the value you’re providing, and how you’re going to measure it, look for a test to run that proves if the idea will stick. 

If it turns out that it doesn’t – and not every idea does, so don’t worry – you’ve saved yourself some valuable time. Instead of going through hours of research into markets that you barely connect with, you’ve asked three questions. Over time, employees will get so good at answering these questions that they won’t even come to you with ideas without the answers to these three questions. 

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