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Get Your Sustainable Idea Approved – with a Business Case!

Jennifer Elder, The Sustainable CFO | Saturday June 18th, 2011 | 0 Comments

You have a great idea reduce your company’s environmental impact or increase its social impact.  You’ve talked to your coworkers and they agree!  There’s just one problem, how do you get the approval of the C-Suite decision-makers?   Your CEO and your CFO are concentrating on the traditional bottom line and may not give you the time to talk about a “feel good” project.

As a former CFO, I have seen many really great ideas crash and burn before they even got started.  But they usually began with someone knocking on my door and saying, “I’ve got a really great idea!  Let me tell you what I want you to do.”  Now it actually may be a really good idea, but if you can’t back the idea up with facts or you want me to figure out how to implement the idea then I’m going to ask you to come back later, much later.  But that doesn’t mean you should give up.  If you want your sustainable idea to see the light of day and get full management support then try looking at it from the C-Suite perspective and use a business case format.

A business case is a method for presenting an idea or project that describes the business reasons for undertaking any project.  While the environmental or social benefits may be enough for you to get excited, the CEO and CFO will want the business reasons in order to give their approval.

The business case provides your decision-makers with the facts and information they need to make a fully informed decision to proceed or not.  It is a tool to evaluate an opportunity or risk, weigh options, analyze costs and benefits, communicate goals, and mitigate problems.  Taking the time and effort to prepare a well thought-out business case will strengthen your concept and give you and your sustainable idea a much greater chance of getting a “yes.”  A business case does not have to be an eloquent 20 page dissertation. It can be presented in a simple one or two page document by following four basic steps.

The Business Case Process

  1. Describe the issue to be addressed
  2. Identify alternatives
  3. Recommend a solution
  4. Prepare an implementation plan

Step 1: Describe the Issue to Be Addressed
To begin with you want to get management’s interest and attention with the big picture. The C-Suite is all about business – solving problems or taking advantage of opportunities in order to achieve the organization’s mission.  How will your idea help them with their problems?  Find the angle that connects with their biggest concerns.

This section has three parts.  First, define the business opportunity or risk (problem) you want to address.  Second, describe the potential benefits of making a change.  Finally, describe how your idea fits with the organization’s mission.

For example, let’s say you want to start an energy reduction program to encourage employees to turn off lights and computers when not in use.  The problem you want to address is the rising cost of electricity. The potential benefits are cost savings, and employee engagement. It’s a good fit for your organization because the mission statement includes the word “profitable.”

Step 2: Identify Alternatives
In this section, describe three to five possible solutions to the problem.  And one of the alternatives can be to do nothing, maintain the status quo.  By identifying possible solutions other than your own, you demonstrate that you are open-minded and willing to look for the best possible solution.  For each alternative, describe the option, strengths, weaknesses, and costs of implementation.

For the energy reduction program you might have 3 alternatives:
a. Install timers and motion sensors in common areas. One of the benefits would be that it they would operate automatically.  A drawback might be the cost to purchase and install.
b. Develop an employee education program and post “Turn Me Off” signs at every light switch. A benefit would be no-cost and the potential team building.  A drawback might be that not everyone will participate
c. Do Nothing.  A benefit would be no cost and no effort.  A drawback would be missed cost savings

Step 3: Recommend a Solution
Here you identify your preferred solution.  You may begin by ranking the various alternatives using a grading system, i.e. which one saves the most money, which one has the least upfront cost.  Your ultimate choice may even be a combination of several alternatives.

With the energy reduction program we might propose a two-stage plan.  The first stage would be an employee education program and phase two would be the installation of motion sensors and timers in locations that do not require constant lighting like restrooms or storage areas.

Step 4: Prepare an Implementation Plan
The final section of the business plan is the implementation process.  Here you describe step-by-step how to achieve the goals of the project.  The implementation plan should address who will be involved and in what roles, the project timeline, an estimate of the amount and timing of costs, the ultimate goal and how you will measure progress towards the goal.

The implementation plan for Phase 1 of the energy reduction program could be implemented by conducting 15 minute training sessions for the employees in the first two weeks.  It might require the assistance of the Human Resource department to coordinate the training.  The ultimate goal is to reduce the amount of electricity used by 15% by the end of the year.  Progress can be measured monthly by comparing the current utility bills to the bills from last year.

These are four simple steps that will allow you to get the attention of your organization’s management team.  The business case presents a clear and compelling argument for your idea.  It addresses the pros and cons of several alternatives and includes an implementation.  It answers all of the who, what, when, where, why, and how questions that the C-Suite needs to make an informed decision.  When you make management’s life easier, you make it easier for them to say, “Yes!”  to your sustainable initiative.

Jennifer Elder, CPA is the owner and President of The Sustainable CFO, making the world better one business at a time. The Sustainable CFO provides practical and effective small business consulting, on-demand CFO services, and business coaching services for environmental and socially responsible businesses.  Visit their website at www.sustainablecfo.com or follow her on Twitter @SustainableCFO


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