Selling Business Case To Your CFO

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Selling Business Case To Your CFO

“Sorry, the funding for your project is not approved …….It’s a great project, but our funds are limited this year”

This is a statement most transformation project leaders are having to get used to these days as the CFOs are tightening belts on funding, especially for transformation projects.

I have been successful in receiving funds for many change projects in the last 16 years of my work with the big corporates. However, I must confess, I have had a good number of rejections as well. Rejections hurt. It’s a good 3-6 months’ worth of information gathering, analysis, stakeholder support, number crunching, numerous versions of slide decks and countless versions of the dreaded ROI spreadsheets down the drain as the CFO stamps “Rejected” on that proposal.

I have been intrigued by what makes a business case sell at the funding table for a very long time.

There are loads of Do’s and Don’ts of writing a good business case. Each expert will have their own checklist on what clicks at the decision table and what doesn’t. Loosely, they all translate to:

  • Finding a senior sponsor to advocate your project at the highest level
  • Doing a thorough analysis to make sure that the numbers speak loud and clear
  • Making a compelling elevator pitch – at the decision table, a project gets 2-5 mins worth of discussion generally.
  • Highlight the impact of not doing your project. And make this impact very personal to the decision makers
  • Support your business case with different versions of presentations to address the variety of perspectives the decision makers will have

Every single item on this list is priceless advice, but I have seen projects getting rejected despite all the above being addressed in letter and spirit. I have seen CFOs reject funding requests for projects supported by Chief Globalization officers or the Presidents of the businesses or projects with slam dunk bottom line results or even the ones where the impact of not doing a project was far more serious than ending up with a bunch of disgruntled employees.

These guidelines, however good they are, still lacked any insight into how decision makers think.

I, then happened to speak to one of my CEOs and the answers started to emerge.

Fortunate enough to interact with him on a very high visibility project, I got the opportunity to hear from the horse’s mouth the answer to the pivotal question – “Why wouldn’t the leadership support this obviously critical project?” , as one of our very deserving project was making its 4th attempt at funding and it was not looking good this time too.

“How many change projects do you think we are sitting on?” he quipped “367! Yes, and all of them claim they will achieve nirvana for us” I could start to see where this was going. He continued “How do you think we make decisions about funding one project and not the other? Sometimes we just select the projects that add up to the total budget we have and make our decision just on that basis. Sometimes, we look at the passion of the leaders behind them. But there is no mechanism for us to evaluate all 367 of them on merit and decide their fate fairly”. That one conversation raised more questions and eventually led to more answers.

On researching all the approved change projects, I could lay my hands on (from within the company and outside) I started to notice some patterns that explained why these projects were favoured against the others.

For all the change projects, successful in receiving the money-nod, these were the common threads that I observed.

  • The Sponsor connected the dots

– In all the projects I studied, this was one common theme for success. The sponsor proved in their business case that all or some of the other projects seeking investment are dependent on their project to delivering the goods.

One strong endorsement of this factor is the funding approval for an IT change project in a very reputed corporation. The IT modernization programme in the company was seeking funds in excess of $100mill. It was the largest single investment sought by any support group in the history of the company and that too when the rest of the company was starving to keep people’s jobs. The justification documents clearly illustrated how the efficiency losses, customer dissatisfaction and lower employee productivity in the main businesses were the due to the aging IT infrastructure.

2. The Sponsor timed the proposal well

– Most of the change projects are initiated either as a response to change in the market situation or to a change in leadership. Whatever be the case, there is an expectation on the time frame to receive the benefits from such projects. If the benefits from that change project in question is not in synch with the time frame expected by the management then the likelihood of that project being approved is very low.

The timeframe for the benefits, though different for different industries, can be categorised into the following three.

  • Short Term

(3 months for tech/ banks; 12 months for industrial companies) – Change projects with an ROI of 3-6 months are favoured when leadership is looking for a fast turnaround. Customer awareness programmes, new marketing campaigns, partnering network initiatives etc tend to be favoured in such environment. If your change project enables any of these initiatives, then you have a strong chance of receiving funding for your project

  • Medium Term

(6-12 months for tech/ banks; 18-30 months for industrial companies)- This is a stage when the leadership has realised that the quick fixes will not deliver the desired results. Re-orgs, Acquisition integration, re-branding, workplace facelifts, new employee incentive programmes tend to win favours with the leadership as medium term change projects

  • Long Term

(> 12 months for tech/ banks; >36 months for industrial companies) – Change projects with ROI/ benefits delivered over longer term are favoured when there is change in leadership or when there is a market downturn. Programmes like Business Process Re-engineering, Workplace Transformation (portfolio wide), Modernization, Footprint reduction, Rewards and Recognition restructuring etc win favours in such situations

So, we can choose. We can choose to either wait for the right climate for our project or to course-correct the scope and impact of our project to make it relevant in current climate

3. The Sponsor partnered with other sponsors

– This was another common thread with all the change projects successful in receiving funding. The sponsor partnered with other sponsors to build a stronger business case that delivered both on short term and long term benefits. That was the key. Just clubbing 2 or 3 different change projects did not work. In fact, that guaranteed rejection as the combined project became too big to inspire any confidence about their success. The key was to combine the right projects so that there was an immediate visible benefit and also a long term benefit from the resulting program.

I am sure one could propose more approaches to position business cases for change projects more favourably. However, building a conclusive list of approaches is not the objective of this post. The intent is to get the insights on the thinking of the decision makers. I always remind myself of the following before writing a business case

  1. There will be 100 other projects on their table and they are all claiming Nirvana – what will make them believe in my claims?
  2. The decision makers do not have any mechanism to determine the merit of each change project – can I make it easier for them to see the merit of my case?
  3. There are many business as usual items clubbed under change projects – Are there items in our scope that we should be doing anyway without waiting for approvals?
  4. Leaders love it when their teams/divisions partner together to solve a problem, lay the blueprint and launch the change project. The decision makers don’t mind being a rubber stamp for such projects – Am I solving the real problems of the intended beneficiaries of my project?
  5. Leaders have limited time and resources – will my project be a burden on those scarce resources?

My approval rates improved significantly after incorporating the wisdom from these insights. More importantly, I was able to gauge the success probability of my change project prior to preparing the business case. That saved me quite a lot of effort, energy, frustration and costs.

I would love to learn what worked for you in your organization. Care to share your experiences? Please comment or send me a message.



  1. Bette says:

    We detieifnly need more smart people like you around.

    • Sanjeev Verma says:

      I think we need a community of radical thinkers Bette …. thank you for your kind comment 🙂