Category Archives: Business

Presenting

Like it or not, sooner or later you are going to have to stand up in front of somebody, or maybe a group of somebodies, and convey some sort of information to them. This is called “presenting”. This event usually occurs when it is deemed that you know more about a certain topic than those in your audience do. Sometimes it is actually the case, and sometimes it is best to study hard and do some research beforehand so that again it can be the case. Regardless, how you perform on this stage, conveying information to other people, can determine a great deal regarding your opportunities to continue progressing in your business career.

Laurence J. Peter is the author of the book the “Peter Principle”. In it he states:

”…that people in a hierarchy tend to rise to their “level of incompetence”. In other words, employees are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another.”

Understand that the ability to cogently present and convey information to others is a baseline, table stakes capability in business. If you are not good at it, you can assume that you are at your current level of incompetence and will remain there until your presentation skills improve.

Also understand that technical competence, or mastery of the topic is only part of the requirement for making successful presentations. In other words, you may know what you are talking about, but that doesn’t mean that you will be successful at getting your point across to others on the topic. I’ll try to go through a few items that you should keep in mind when you are presenting. Many should be obvious, however some maybe not so much so.

Who is your audience?
Believe it or not, this is important. Not everyone is going to be interested in what you have to say. Who are the people in the room that will be listening to you, and why are they there? Your presentation needs to match their expectations. Management will want general trends and overviews. Individual contributors may want more specifics. Sales, engineering and finance all have different expectations regarding the presentations they see. Sales wants to know how whatever you are talking about will help them sell more. If this aspect is not addressed, for them it will be wasted time. Likewise, finance will want to know about the costs, revenue, profitability of the topic. Telling them about how it will help them sell more will at best be only marginally acceptable.

What is the “Thesis Statement” for your presentation?
What is the purpose of your presentation? Why is this presentation important to them? Is it just to report on the progress of an internal company project? Is it a customer product or service presentation as part of an ongoing customer sales engagement? Are you trying to get management to agree to fund development of a new product?

The point here is that a presentation is usually used to convince somebody about something. Whether it is that progress is actually occurring on a project, or that your product is superior to the competition’s, you should have either a specific or implicit thesis, or reason for your presentation. This will help keep you on topic, and again it will help limit the amount of extraneous information that may try and creep into your presentation.

How much time do you have?

As Gary Larson has shown, time is money. People have only a certain amount of time that they can devote to certain activities. You may have the most import, or most interesting topic to talk about, but you will never have all the time that you will feel that you will need to be able to comfortably talk about it.

“One well-known formulation for PowerPoint presentations is the 10/20/30 rule. This rule dictates that you should use about ten slides for a twenty minute presentation, and each slide should utilize thirty point font. In other words, each slide should be about two minutes in length.”
https://www.wikihow.com/Choose-the-Right-Number-of-Slides-for-a-Powerpoint-Presentation

Needless to say, most presentations do not adhere to this information, and as such, most presentations today, in my opinion are often not very good. If you can’t say it succinctly in twenty to thirty minutes with ten to fifteen slides, at most, then you have too much non-critical information in your presentation. Be succinct.

Proof read your presentation. Several times.
With today’s spelling and grammatical checking capabilities, there is no excuse for misspelled words, improper grammar, improper punctuation or improper word usage (their, there, they’re).
End of story.
How can you be perceived as an expert, leader, or in this case imparter of information and wisdom if you cannot deliver the message free of mechanical errors. Having them undermines the intended message.

Simplify everything associated with your presentation.
Not everyone will have your level of knowledge regarding the topic. Specifically define any acronyms you may choose to use. You are presenting slides, not writing a book. Bulletize everything possible. It will help break up the slide. It will make it easier for the audience to follow. It will force you to be concise in what you say. Remember, you are not having a conversation. You are presenting.

Do not read your slides to the audience.
There is a very good chance that everyone in your audience can read. You don’t need to read to them.

“A picture is worth a thousand words” is an English language-idiom. It refers to the notion that a complex idea can be conveyed with just a single picture, this picture conveys its meaning or essence more effectively than a description does.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_picture_is_worth_a_thousand_words

Convey the essence of your topic with the slide and let the verbal aspect of your presentation deliver any necessary specifics to fill in the story.

Unless you are specifically presenting a detailed topic, such as tabulated data, or specific engineering or performance metrics, etc, the less verbiage on a slide, the better. As I said, you can speak to the slide to impart the specifics. It also enables you to manipulate your time allotment by speaking more to certain slides and less to others, and still stay within your time allotment.

Respect other people’s time.

Be ready to start on time. Set the standard for answering any questions either during (interactive presenting) or at the end of the presentation. Do not run longer than your allotted time. There may be instances where the consensus is that you should take more time, depending on the topic and audience, but in general, you need to be prepared to finish within your allotted time.

As business continues to get more complex, it is many times an easy trap to fall into in making our presentations also more complex. We have the technical capabilities to edit and manipulate both data and image to the point where we can have far more data on a single slide than can either be presented or understood quickly. We continue to generate more complex data and then use more complex means to convey it.

It seems that both the amount of data per slide, and the number of slides per presentation continues to expand. It takes us longer and longer to present the information, and many times we end up spending time presenting to an audience that has a marginal interest in the topic to begin with.

Presentations of all types are an integral part of business. With the continued acceleration of the velocity of business, we need to be ever more mindful of both the time we spend presenting a topic, as well as the time we spend preparing the presentation on the topic. Shorter and more focused presentations are a far more preferable means to convey and convince than the seemingly more prevalent, long and detailed ones that appear to be in vogue today.

Expertise is more better displayed by making the complex simple and easy to understand than it is by making the presentation more complex, and longer, to match the topic.

Process Purpose

With the continued increase of the process-oriented approach to all facets of business, a new phrase has found its way into almost every business conversation and lexicon: “How do we fix the process?”. Immediately upon hearing this, it is not uncommon for multiple teams to set up multiple cross functional calls, across multiple geographies and time zones to discuss the problems. Multiple issues will be defined with the process, and multiple action items will be assigned.

We are no longer fixing business problems or issues. We are fixing processes. Much of the generated activity and churn associated with fixing the process might be avoided with the simple act of stepping back and first correctly understanding what the purpose of the process is.

Many times, we all take it for granted that the process is there to help employees perform their required tasks. We associate processes with making things go faster. Making tasks easier to complete. Sometimes this is the case. Many times, however, maybe not. I’ll provide a few generic examples.

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, back when I was relatively new to business, I remember there used to be a very special place where companies, business units, groups, teams, etc., kept a very special resource known as supplies. Supplies usually consisted of the little things that made it easier for employees to do their jobs, such as pens, pencils, paper, notebooks, staplers, tape and tape dispensers, highlighters and the like. When people needed these supplies, they would go find the person that had the key to the supply location, get access to it and select the supplies that they needed to continue efficiently performing their job.

As time passed and costs and cash flows continued to draw greater and greater attention from the company’s financial community, it was decided that this anachronistic way of providing employees supplies was not in the company’s best interest. It may have been efficient for the employee, but not for the company. Seemingly random and untracked amounts of money were being spent on supplies, and then these supplies would just sit idle (reference to the utility of money and cash flow) somewhere, waiting for someone to come by and use them. And then there was no specific process or methodology to be able to track who was actually using these supplies.

Unaccounted for money and expense was sitting in supply cabinets everywhere.

The result was that associated support teams and their supply budgets were reduced. And usually in their place a new process was created where individual employees would then have to access the on-line purchasing systems themselves where they could then order their required supplies.

Now admittedly the preceding topic has created an exacerbated issue in that it does require a change in employee behaviors. In the past, an employee would wait until their pen ran out of ink, or they used their last piece of paper before going to the supply location and getting more. Now they had to take into account the added time and complication of gaining access to the supply ordering system, and the delay associated with the supply provider delivering the desired supplies, and the internal delivery system to get desired supplies from the loading dock to their office.

What used to be a simple walk to the supply location to get any required supplies, had now become a multi-day, multi-system, multi-approval ordering process.

Now a days, if you need supplies, you had better plan ahead. Or you can just run by the office supply store yourself, and buy your own supplies. Either way, the corporate goal of the new office supplies process has been achieved: the amount of money the company spends on supplies has been reduced.

The point I am making here is that the supply ordering process was not implemented to make it easier to order supplies. It was put in place to reduce the amount spent on supplies. It was put in place to reduce the amount of money the company has tied up in supplies, sitting in some supply cabinet, waiting for someone to come by and get them.

The same can now be said just about any process that involves the expenditure of company funds. Travel approval policies are not there to make it easier for people to travel. Hiring processes are not there to make it easier to hire people. These processes are not put in place not to make it easier, or faster to perform these functions. They are in place for corporate tracking and control.

Just because they take extra time and require multiple approvals does not mean they are broken processes. In many instances it means that they are working as planned.

On the other side of the coin, we can look at those processes that are associated with the provision of the product or service that the company sells in its selected markets.

Sales people inherently understand that the relatively cheaper a product is versus its competition, the easier it is to sell and the greater the probability for a successful sale. Companies that vest too much uncontrolled authority in the sales arm have a tendency to experience lower margins and profitability, as sales tries to press for lower prices.

As proof of this point, would you be willing to go to the gas station across the street to buy their gasoline if it was five cents a gallon cheaper? How about two cents a gallon? There is always a point where convenience and timing can outweigh price differential, but in today’s cost intensive world price always plays a key role in everyone’s purchase decisions.

Sales and pricing processes are then normally put in place to enable business management to have greater influence on pricing in an effort to achieve desired profit levels. These are not processes designed to make it easier to create quotes and provide lower prices. These are processes designed to put checks and balances in place that protect the company’s profitability.

If you are a sales person attempting to compete for a customer’s order, they are an impediment and hindrance to your potential success. They are a broken process that is making it more difficult for you to obtain the order.

They are also probably the result of someone (or multiple someone’s) demonstrating bad judgement. Somewhere, sometime, someone probably knew that a price that was supplied to a customer was probably not in the best interest of the company as a whole, but did it anyway in order to get an order. The individual goal was achieved, but the corporate profitability suffered.

I have said many times that process is implemented as a substitute for judgement. In this case, bad judgement.

Sales people inherently know that the company must be profitable, if it is to continue in business. Margins must be at sufficient levels to meet the numerous business objectives such as paying for expenses, investing in new product development, paying sales commissions and providing a reasonable return to its investors.

Unfortunately, most sales incentive plans are focused solely on obtaining a top line order level. This is the objective that drives sales people to try and drive prices down, thereby making it easier for them to sell. It is also contrary to business objectives listed above.

In this situation there would be two key aspects of the business structure creating friction. The physics definition of friction is:

“… the resistance to motion of one object moving relative to another.” https://www.livescience.com/37161-what-is-friction.html

One trying to move price down, and one trying to increase prices. Process or not, this is inefficient for the company and creates waste.

Instead of creating a process to govern a function that generates corporate friction, which I would liken to the “stick” approach to problem resolution, (removing independent thought and decision making capability from those closest to the customer) I would suggest that It might be better to implement incentives that encourage the desired behaviors, or the “carrot” approach.

What might happen if the company offered the incentive of increased commissions to sales with higher margins, and at the same time offered the deterrent of significantly reduced commissions on sales with lower margins?

Instead of creating a process that can become an obstacle to the desired event (getting office supplies, or generating competitive customer offers and proposals…) which must be dealt with, or in some instances overcome, why not reexamine the event (and judgement point) that is driving the creation of the proposed process? Aligning individual, business unit and corporate goals, with appropriate incentives and deterrents for specific behaviors could be a much more efficient way of dealing with the issue.

With this approach in mind, it might be found that much of the effort that may be currently spent on “fixing the process” can be refocused on solving the underlying business issue and need. This is because, as has just been demonstrated, just because a process is not helping the individual be more effective and efficient at doing their job, does not mean that it is a broken process.

Question Everything

One of my favorite shows just started its eleventh season. It is the X-Files. Watching agents Moulder and Scully deal with various supposed conspiracies, monsters and other abnormal behavior associated with aliens (the science fiction ones, not the terrestrial, international border crossing ones), the various hidden agendas and conspiracy leaders obviously got me to thinking about all the parallels that can be drawn between the television show and what actually goes on in business. In the X-Files it is said that “the truth is out there”. That may not truly be the case in business, although one would hope so. With that being said, when searching for answers out there in business, it may be best to remember this little gem: Question Everything.

Since we are crossing the science fiction with the business schools of management here, we probably ought to start with a quote from one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time, Robert Heinlein. He said:

“If “everybody knows” such-and-such, then it ain’t so, by at least ten thousand to one.”

There have been many instances in my career where I have taken on a new role where the phrase “Challenge and opportunity” was involved. At first, I thought this was a management code phrase for a bad thing because that was what those around told me it was. They all knew that the issues and challenges plaguing the operation were deep rooted, endemic and impossible to fix. Many had gone before me and none had been successful.

What I learned was that these challenges and opportunities really are opportunities. They should be sought out, not avoided. They are not easily solved or corrected, but few issues in business ever are. The truth that was out there, was that the solution was not to be found in fixing the issues that others had supposedly identified and already (unsuccessfully) dealt with. Everybody knew that those were the only real issues, and everybody knew that none of the solutions that had been applied worked.

And as Heinlein noted everybody was usually wrong.

When I first take on a new opportunity and challenge, I probably ask a bunch of dumb questions. There are many who think that is the only type of question I am capable of asking. I could see the exasperation on the faces of those that I asked. I was new to the role. I wasn’t fully experienced in it. My questions were probably dumb. It is not a bad thing to own the truth.

That was okay. As I got smarter about the situation, so did my questions.

Invariably I ended up coming back to the original dumb questions. These were the ones that were usually answered with lines such as “That’s the way we do it” or “That process evolved over time” or “It was the result of an event that occurred several years ago”. These were in effect the “everybody knows” we do it that way response.

The eventual solutions invariably came from questioning these “everybody knows” basic tenets of the unit’s operation. Just because that was the way it has been done, doesn’t mean it is the correct, or proper way to do it.

I found that most issues associated with the “challenge and opportunity” performance of a business stemmed from the basics of how the business was set up to run. Too many times it is the symptoms associated with the improper basic assumptions or alignments of an organization that are focused on. These are the easiest things to see, and hence the most visible to treat.

Notice that I said treat, not cure.

If a business performance issue is large enough to be visible to management to the extent that it is felt that a change is needed, it is usually not a superficial, easily recognizable symptom, that is the cause. It usually relates to a basic way that the business is done. Treating a symptom does not cure the problem.

When it comes to this level of business examination, everybody becomes a stakeholder. Everybody has agreed to do it “that way”. And as a result, there will be resistance from everybody when it comes to questioning, and even changing what has been viewed by so many as basic to the way the business has been run.

This means that when questioning everything, be sure to do it on an individual level. When digging in to any organizational or operational can of worms it is best to do it on an individual basis. Jumping back to our science fiction, alien based school of business management thought, Tommy Lee Jones summed up this phenomenon best when he was discussing whether or not to let everyone on earth know that the earth was in danger of being destroyed by aliens in the first Men in Black (MiB) movie. He said:

“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it!”

He was pointing out that people in a group will do, say and act differently than they do as an individual. There is much that has been written about the psychology of groups (and mobs). Most of what has been written is succinctly summed up in what the quote from MiB.

This is no different in business. Almost every individual, will separately acknowledge that a change must be implemented, However, when the individuals are placed in a group, the group will almost always unanimously state that no change is possible, or if change is in fact needed, it is the other groups, and not theirs that must change. This is the group fear of change and the unknown.

We have to remember that science fiction and change in business actually have a lot in common. I think Arthur C. Clarke, another great science fiction writer put it best. He said:

“…science fiction is something that could happen – but usually you wouldn’t want it to.”

When it comes to change in business, it can also be described as something that could happen, but usually most people don’t really want it to. Change means incrementing in risk on both an individual and group level. It is doing something that hasn’t been done before. It requires leaving the current comfort zone. It is as Captain Kirk intoned in the prolog to Star Trek (both the original series and the movies):

“To boldly go where no one has gone before….”

Not everybody is built to be that adventurous. Either in space exploration, or business. That is why process has been created, introduced, and flourished in business. Process is designed to reduce the need for judgment, and add predictability and hence comfort. It in effect, tries to remove the adventure from business.

As such, it also adds impedance and resistance to the need, introduction and acceptance of change. If everyone in the process knows and accepts their role in the process, then any change introduced to the fundamental functions associated with the business will probably affect all of their roles. No one likes to have their role affected by an external entity, regardless of who or what that entity is. Hence, they will either directly or indirectly resist or impede the proposed change.

This effect is usually the genesis of the everyone knows it can’t be done phenomenon.

This brings us to the final intersection between business and science fiction (at least in this article). Terry Pratchett, author of the satirical and humorous “Discworld” series of books put it best:

“It is well known that a vital ingredient of success is not knowing that what you’re attempting can’t be done.”

Not knowing that an issue “can’t be fixed” is probably the key to fixing it. If everyone knows that is the way that things are done, then it is probably a very good place to start looking for solutions. If everyone is resistant to change, then it is probably a good bet that change is what is needed most in that organization.

When changing, you have to question everything. Especially those topics which everyone believes don’t need to be questioned. This is precisely because all the topics that everyone does believe need to be questioned, have probably already been questioned, and didn’t provide the solution. The truth is probably out there, but if you don’t question everything, there is a very good chance that you will miss it in favor of the more easily digested and implemented symptomatic solution, which is probably the one that everybody knows is the right one.

And remember what Heinlein said about what everybody knows…..

The Short Horizon

As the pace of business continues to accelerate, there seems to be one aspect of the business process model that is struggling to keep up: The Business Case. There was a time where capital expenditures were looked upon as long term investments by the business. The life-cycle and pay-back processes, as well as the accounting amortization of these investments, were expected to last years, and in some instances, even decades. The average business case became attuned to these norms.

But those days are long gone. As the speed with which technology has changed has continued, by necessity the business case used to justify the new or incremental investment has needed to become shorter. If Moore’s law of eighteen-month capability doubling (it was actually Intel executive David House, who predicted that chip performance would double every 18 months. Gordon Moore, for whom the law is named, was the co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, and whose 1965 paper described a doubling every two years in the number of transistors per integrated circuit was the basis for the coining of the “law”) is to be believed, then the asymptote for the length of an acceptable business case should approach that eighteen month to two year limit as well.

That doesn’t mean that a product’s useful life is only limited to eighteen months. I think quite the contrary. There are aspects of the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) that have been in place for more than fifty years, and are still providing beneficial service to the communications carriers and their subscribers alike.

On the other hand, people are known to line up and over-night camp out every eighteen to twenty-four months in order to be the first to get the next generation of the Apple iPhone.

It appears that customers who are being asked for either capital or operational expenditures associated with technology oriented products, are driving their partners and their vendors to ever more rigorous and aggressive value propositions and rates of return. This is the genesis of the short horizon business case.

The simplest definition of value is how much money is made or saved over what period of time. The more you make, or the more you save over a given period, the better the value. In the past it was acceptable for a business case to extend out over a long enough time period as to show an acceptable return. If the initial business case for the sale didn’t make sense for one period of time, it was easy just to lengthen out the time frame until it did.

What appears to be happening is that as the rate of technological based product change has continued at the speed of Moore’s Law, the period that a customer is willing to measure value has shrunk. Business cases still need to show the customer value, they now must do it in far less time. The tried and true form of extending the business case period to make the value and pay back equations work is now gone. Customers will no longer accept it, and are driving for shorter and shorter review periods.

I think there are several factors in addition to technical obsolescence that are helping to drive a short horizon on the business case:

As each new generation of technology arrives it almost exponentially drives down the (residual) value of previous generations. I think it is no secret that one generation old technology is viewed as old and disadvantaged, and that two-generation old technology is probably approaching the zero value state. We have all seen this in our consumer based technology purchases as well. Products get old so quickly that we have developed a disposable attitude toward them. With Personal computers now going for a few hundred dollars, what is the value of a two-generation old computer? What was once repaired and retained is now simply expected to be replaced.

How would consumers (and manufacturers) react if the same logic was applied to say, automobiles and two to three model year old car was considered almost valueless?

We also see (comparatively) decreasing operational returns as each new technology generation is introduced. This means that as each new product gets smaller and more efficient the value of generating operational savings associated with the previous generation of product also tends to get devalued.

The idea of saving something with what you have is not as attractive as the possibility of saving more with something new. I guess this is what they call “Marketing”.

I think one of the final evolution’s of the short horizon business case is the “Cloud”. I am sure everyone has heard of this thing. It’s in all the magazines.

One of the many ways that manufacturers and vendors have adapted to the evolving business case rules is to try and remove both the obsolescence associated with technology and to more closely align the delivered solution with the customer’s need. The idea being that if a customer only needs a four-unit solution but the technology only comes in six or eight unit increments, there is a delivered solution miss-match.

By delivering a function from the cloud as opposed to a product based solution, the vendor has effectively removed technology obsolescence from the customer’s decision process, as well as matched the required amount of solution with the required amount of need.

The net result is a much shorter period needed to achieve the required business case. Customer purchases can be made in smaller increments, which in turn only require smaller pay-backs. Future product purchases and existing product obsolescence are removed from the customer’s decision criteria as the customer is now only purchasing the product’s function, not the product itself. The obsolescence issue, and all the other costs associated with operation of the product are now retained by the vendor (and should be built into their business case).

The continued drive for more value has driven customers and business cases to the short horizon. Capital for technology can no longer be viewed as a long-term investment. It must be judged and justified by how quickly it can pay back on its cost and the relative business value it generates. It is this drive for better business returns that continues to reduce the time scale associated with the business case.

This trend would appear to potentially be a seed cause for future changes to the way business is conducted. On one hand it will continue to make the sale of capital based technology products more difficult. By demanding shorter pay-back and business case periods, customers are in essence expecting lower prices for products, and higher value delivered. That is a demanding and difficult environment for any supplier.

It should also continue to drive product virtualization and the Cloud as ways for suppliers to retain costs and risks, and hence remove them from the customer’s business case. This will continue to be an interesting market, but not all technologies and products may be potential candidates for the cloud.

It could also be argued that a potentially unexpected result of the drive to align business cases with product life cycles could be the reversal of Moore’s Law. It has long been expected that there is some sort of limit to the capacity doubling process. It has been going on for over fifty years. There are recent articles in no less than the MIT Technology Review, Ars Technica, and The Economist (to name just a few) that are now stating that Moore’s Law have in fact run its course.

And this may also be of benefit to business. If customers want to align their capital business case length with the product’s life cycle, and the current eighteen to twenty-four month life cycle of the product makes this increasingly difficult, then one of the solutions may be to lengthen the product life cycle to more than twenty-four months. If there truly is a link between business case length and product life cycle, then this could be a possible solution.

This will be an interesting cause and effect discussion. Is the potential slowing of Moore’s Law going to cause the reversing of the short horizon trend associated with customer’s business cases, or is the demand for short horizon business cases going to accelerate the slowing of Moore’s Law due to business necessities? Either way, customers are requiring businesses to change the way they put together the business case for capital technology sales, and that is having a significant effect on how business can successfully get done.

Business Cases

“My mind is aglow with whirling, transient nodes of thought careening through a cosmic vapor of invention. My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought, cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives…”

(Hedley (not Hedy) Lamarr in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles”.)

Ditto.
Extra points if you knew who said that as well as who uttered the response.

I seem to have costs on my mind (as well as a lot of other things, apparently) these days. I didn’t know what I wanted to address in this posting: Cost Reduction, Business Cases, Business Predictability all seemed to have been foremost in my mind among the possible group of posting topics. It seemed like the best thing to do was get started and see where it went. It went to “Blazing Saddles”. I don’t know if it is recoverable from there, but I will try.

Since this is nominally a Business Blog, and I did at least tangentially address cost reduction as one of the primary growth industries in business in my last posting, I think that I will head over into business cases. However, do not lament the transition away from cost reduction entirely, as costs do play an important role in the creation of any good business case.

It appears that creating or generating a really good business case is becoming a lost art. Coming up with an idea, specifying the investment parameters, analyzing the markets and demands, and ultimately defining the returns and value to the company are some of the building blocks of a successful business. It is a rigorous process (and it should be) because it deals with the lifeblood of the business – money.

This is not going to be some sort of a “how to” do a business case primer. It’s more about what they are and why they’re needed. Simply put, a business case is the justification package that you put together when you want the company or organization to invest in something. This is a very high level definition. The “something” to be invested in can be almost anything: research and development for new products, production automation equipment to reduce the labor component associated with manufacturing, additional sales people in an effort to expand the addressable market and grow sales, are just a few of the fun ones that come to mind.

Business cases are all about what the company should invest in. Investing is all about money, specifically when you spend it, how much of it you spend, when you get it back and how much more of it you get back. Businesses are in business to make money. Like every good investor, when money is spent or invested, a return is expected on that money or investment. If that does not seem to be the case, then the business case process has probably broken down.

I do not claim to be a business case guru. I have put several of them together and have found a few topics that I look for in every good business case. If you want to find out all that should be included in a business case, just Google “Business Case Template”. I think you will get a little more than eight million results.

In my experience, every good business case should have the following three major components:

What is it that is wanted?
What are you asking for and how much is it going to cost? Every business case is about asking for money. In the examples I cited above you would be asking for a specific amount of money for either research and development (people, lab space, lab equipment, etc.), money for manufacturing equipment for automated production, or money for salaries for incremental sales people. This amount is known as the investment.

What is it that you get for the money?
Why would the organization or business want to give you this money? What are they going to get in return? If it is for research and development, what products are they going to get and how will they positively affect the growth of the company. If it is for an automated production line, how much are production costs going to be decreased. If it is for additional sales people, how much are sales going to increase.

When do they get their money back?
No, the organization is not “giving” you money. Think of it as a loan. Every loan needs to be paid back, with interest. This interest is usually in the form of increased profits for the company, either in the form of margins from increased sales or reduced costs. If you don’t believe me on this repayment with interest thing, just ask the bank or financing company the next time you want to invest in a car or house. I think they will be quite specific regarding the interest you will be paying on the loan and the expected repayment schedule that they will require you to comply with. This money that is given back to the company is known as the return on investment.

Business Case Tip #1.
One of the guiding principles of a good business case is that the return on investment should be greater than the investment itself was.

I don’t think there are many (any?) other business case tips that can be given that have the same importance as this one. A proper business case requests a specific amount of money. It defines what the money will be used for (spent on). It specifies what will be produced (new products, cost reductions, increased sales, etc.). It also forecasts when and how much the returns will be. It is all about the numbers.

It is this last part which is especially important. When are they going to get their money back. It is during this discussion when you may hear a term such as “pay-back”. Pay-back is when they get all of their original investment back. This is the break-even point. After this, everything that is returned to the company is a benefit or profit.

Business Case Tip #2
No matter how soon or how quickly the business case hits the “pay-back” point, it will not be soon enough.

Contrary to what some may believe, money in a company is not free. A company must pay for its money, one way or the other. A company can fund a business case investment via either debt or equity financing. In debt financing it is the interest and overheads that it must pay on the loan (debt) it takes out to get the money. In equity financing it is the relative risk and return it must pay in the form of stock appreciation or dividends to the equity investor in order to attract them. This is called “the cost of capital”. It is in effect the interest or discount rate that the company must use in the business case when it looks at the future returns on its investment.

The longer it takes to reach pay back to the company, the more the amount of discount that is applied to the return. The greater the discount, the more difficult it should be to make the business case work.

Remember that there is a limited amount of investment money that is available to any company. There is only so much that the company can borrow before the financial position of the company is adversely affected by its debt position and only so much stock that can be issued before the market adversely affects the equity price and expectation for the stock.

There are also other businesses and organizations within the company that would like to invest in their opportunities as well. That will create a competition for those investment funds. So how should the company decide where to invest?

There are usually two instances where a company will invest. One of the easiest is to invest only in those business cases that provide the greatest return on the investment. That would be those opportunities that have the best business cases. You have just seen above what should be expected at a high level for a good business case.

The second place that a company usually invests is in those strategic initiatives that may not provide the best return but are required for the long term health of the company. What are these strategic initiatives you may ask? That’s a good question. I have found business cases to try to define themselves as a strategic initiative when they contain a request for funding that does not show a reasonable return on the requested investment.

That’s probably not entirely true. There are investments for things such as core technologies that other products are built from that could be defined as strategic (among the many others of this type) as well as initiatives outside of the financially definable realm such as the reduction of carbon footprints or diversity that may not contribute directly to the financial well being of the company, but should be done none the less for the greater good of the company.

Companies expect and need to make money. Otherwise they normally do not get to remain companies for very long. I think a great deal of any company’s success can probably be attributed to how strong their business case process is, and how well they adhere to it. Having people who understand what a good business case is can go a long way to attaining that success.

Feeling Inferior

I like to read. My son says he would prefer to wait for the movie. Any movie. Seeing as how he is still only fifteen years old, I don’t think that there is much that I can do about that right now. What I can do is control what I read. I was under the misguided idea that occasionally I should read articles, magazines and books written by and for successful people, who like to tell us other presumably less successful people what we should do to become more successful, just like them.

I don’t think I am going to do this anymore.

Every time I read one of these success missives, I can’t help but feel inferior. It has a tendency to either depress me or drive me nuts.

I’ll demonstrate by example:

I got an email notification that my college alma mater (of all things) “liked” an article on one of those professional networking sites. I take being a mighty Lobo alumnus of the University of New Mexico very seriously so I thought it best to go check out what my alma mater deemed important enough to actually like. I clicked on the link in the notification.

Via the magic of the internet I was immediately whisked to the site of some business and technology e-zine with the appropriately titled article (and I am paraphrasing here as I don’t wish to have to provide attribution)

“27 Things that People Who Are More Successful Than You Do Every Day – Including Weekends – Before They Leave Work, That You Probably Don’t Do Which Explains Why They Are Successful And You Aren’t”

You would be surprised how close to the real title that paraphrase is.

As I said, I like to read. I read for information and enjoyment. I also believe it is something of a dying art. I mean why read when you can text or IM or as my son does, watch the movie anyway? But that is not the point. The point here is that I was already at the site. I consider myself to be reasonably successful. I have not ruled the world but I have done moderately okay. I figured I would peruse the first few topics of the list of successful attributes purely out of self interest and compare what the list said successful people do with what I do and see how much similarity there was.

Big mistake.

After furiously reading through the entire list with ever increasing disbelief to see if there was anything at all that I did at the end of the day that even remotely resembled something that a successful person was purported to have done at the end of the day, I came to the crushing conclusion that I am not fit to leave work at the end of the day, let alone work anywhere.

In case some of you have not experienced the joy that accompanies an epiphany that springs from reading an article like this, let me provide an example as a means of explanation. Most of us know how to sign our names. There are probably a few of us who don’t, and due to the penmanship challenges associated with the inability to sign their name these people are hence genetically selected to become doctors. Over time we have all probably evolved our “signature”.

Now take the pen that you normally sign your name with, put in the other hand (the hand that normally holds the paper while the first hand signs your signature) and now be told that all successful people are ambidextrous and in order for you too to be considered successful you should immediately be able to use that other hand to sign your signature as quickly, clearly and effortlessly as the first hand.

Give it a try. See how that works for you.

You now have only the slightest of inklings how it feels to read these articles about the habits, traits, customs, manners, dispositions, styles, fashions, penchants and proclivities of successful business people.

It depresses me that I don’t seem to have any resemblance at all to these so called successful people. It depresses me that I don’t spring out of bed at four o’clock in the morning prepared to shampoo the dog and rotate the tires on my wife’s car, and jog six or eight miles while thinking great world changing thoughts, all before going into the office like successful people are being depicted as doing. I am crestfallen that I don’t seem to be the appropriate whirl wind of activity in the last ten minutes of my business day closing off to-do lists, clearing my desk while simultaneously creating a workable plan to solve world hunger as I prepare to do battle with the other presumably unsuccessful souls on my commute home from the office.

It further concerns me that almost all the people that I know that I would consider to be successful also seem to have nothing in common with the ideal successful person that these articles describe.

In the past I have discussed how happiness cannot be derived from the actions and relative performance of others. I guess the corollary here is that feelings of depression and inferiority in the office should also not be the result of the actions and relative performance of others either.

Unfortunately that approach does not seem to sell articles, magazines and books. Nor does it seem like a very good way to drive people to specific web sites where their eyeballs can be assaulted by both an article describing in detail why they should by inference not consider themselves to be successful as well as those advertisers that are on that site who have specifically tailored their self-help ads to those people who after reading the article are now feeling so insecure about their relative worth and success in business.

What this epiphany does open up to me is the idea of a new opportunity to address a whole new segment of the self help article, magazine and book market. It is the segment of the market that is for the business person that is at least in part moderately successful, and wants to feel good about what they have accomplished. Think about that for a moment. Doesn’t everyone want a little recognition, reinforcement and reaffirmation that they have in fact been doing things well?

Think about the titles for these articles, magazines and books that could be generated, based on this new and previously untapped market approach:

“From Good to Better”
“Twelve Habits of the Moderately Successful”
“Congratulations on Making it to the Office on Time”
“How to Get Back From Lunch in One Hour”
“Speakerphone Etiquette in the Cube Farm”
“The Art of Aiming Low and Meeting Your Objectives”

The list could go on and on.

I understand that in this day and age that it is hyperbole that sells. As another example, in the past it used to be enough to just report the news. Now we seem to have a never ending stream of talking heads that are associated with one end of the political spectrum or the other that are now presenting their “version” of the news. Everything now has “spin” and now screams for our attention. I think the same is now the case for the plethora of business “self help” articles, magazines and books that are vying for our attention.

Each of these new and improved lists of elements associated with success seems to be more outlandish than the previous. As I noted before, based on these items it is hard to understand how I or anyone else is or can ever be considered successful. Hence the source of my concerns over these feelings of inferiority.

I think the bottom line is that when you take everything into consideration it is still things like drive, determination, attention to detail, effort, honesty, knowledge, experience, cooperation, preparation and maybe just a smidgeon of luck that are some of the determining factors in success. These concepts are not particularly exciting and don’t promise any secret short cuts to success. Maybe that explains why there doesn’t seem to be a market for a book titled:

“Be Smart, Work Hard, Perform Well and Move Ahead”

Perhaps another answer to being considered a success is to write a book that tells other people what they should do in order to be considered a success.

A Tree in The Forest


I am sure as children we have all heard the parable “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” No matter how you answered the question, the rejoinder was “How do you know for sure?”



The business equivalent of this parable is “If you work very hard all month, and you do not generate a monthly report of your activities, did you really do any work?” The answer to this one is a little bit simpler. If you did not document your progress and activities then in reality you didn’t do any work. If you want to argue this point, my rejoinder will be “How will management know for sure?”



I have heard many reasons and excuses for not generating a monthly report. It takes too much time. I didn’t have a great month so I don’t want to document so little progress. I had a great month so I don’t want to seam self aggrandizing. The bottom line is that there is no excuse for not generating a monthly report.



They don’t take a lot of time. If they do, you’re probably doing them wrong. Some monthly reports may be stronger than others. That is the nature of business. The fact is that a brief 1-2 page monthly report is your opportunity to capture the value that you and your team brought to the company. Businesses are focused on generated value. If you are not showing and documenting your value, how can they know what value you are to them?