The trend for early business cases is actually destroying value when it is intended to protect it.

Two Conflicting Trends

In a number of organizations I have noticed two conflicting trends

  1. Organizations want business cases produced earlier (to prevent wastage of funds)
  2. Organizations want increased estimation accuracy – typically ± 10%.

While the objectives are totally understandable, they are unrealistic.

Too early

If you insist on a business case too early in the project lifecycle you incur a high level of uncertainty — there are many things that you just don’t know or don’t know well enough to accurately estimate. Often business cases are generated based on “high level requirements” – but, as we all know, the devil is in the detail and when the ‘detailed requirements’ are later defined they will often blow the budget—and then you're into scope and value reduction.

You need to remember what you’re trying to achieve – ie not waste money, not allocate money to poor projects (however you want to define that) and not have big cost blowouts. Bringing the business case forward and insisting on greater accuracy at the same time does not achieve this.

Better ways to manage your money

Instead, what you need to do is…

Funds management

1 Recognise that there are ‘sunk’ funds, ‘at risk’ funds and ‘total’ funds.

‘Sunk funds’ is the expenditure to date – this money has gone whatever happens in the future. It may be painful, but it is not recoverable.

‘At risk’ funds are the expenditure that you’ll lose if you invest in the next stage and then cancel the project. While you want to minimize ‘at risk’ funds, you also want to invest enough to assess on a reliable basis if the project will be valuable and viable.

‘Total funds’ is the total expenditure to the end of the project and these funds are only at risk when they’re allocated and then spent.

However great the total funds are, they are not at risk until you put them at risk. Better to spend, say, $5m determining the true value and cost of a project than, say, $500K to generate a baseless business case that later explodes in cost or implodes in value (or both).

Evaluation management

2 Recognise that the level of estimation uncertainty is high until the detailed requirements are known, the solution defined and the delivery approach agreed. Up until then the level of uncertainty is certainly above ±10%.

The progressive questions a project needs to answer (as cheaply as practical) are
  1. Is the idea/concept relevant to our strategy and areas of focus?
  2. Is the project likely to be valuable, viable and worthwhile?
  3. Can we afford it?
  4. Can we deliver it?
  5. Do we have the capacity to deliver it?
  6. Is this the best use of our time, attention and resources now?

As soon as any question is failed the project should be stopped and any remaining funds reallocated to other initiatives. The early evaluation process should, therefore, be focused on answering these six questions at minimum cost rather than insisting on early but unrealistic certainty.

Unknowns management

3 Ruthlessly review projects/ideas/initiatives to see how they are faring against the six questions – and stop any that fail any criterion as quickly as possible.

Along the way, as a project progresses, there will still be areas where you won’t know the full answer yet – this then needs to become the focus of the next stage of the project.

By the time you get to the final business case stage you should have no unknowns. Then you can have an estimate ± 10% and rely on it.

In Conclusion


Demanding tight accuracy early in the project’s lifecycle is flying in the face of reality – the current trends – and is a value destroying approach.


Topics: Business Case

Revision History

First published: Simms, J. (Sept 2010) as "Your Business Case Timing Can Be Destroying Massive Value"

Updated: Chapman, A. (March 2020), Revisions and Corrections