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On Business Cases, Failure and Unmet Benefits: Don’t Discard the Baby with the Bathwater

Updated: Sep 10, 2023

Have you ever had a Eureka moment – an idea you're convinced will transform your business and set the market ablaze? If so, you're not alone. In fact, you're in the company of countless businesses or individuals that embark on ambitious projects every year, buoyed by high expectations.

Yet, as many of us will have experienced, the chasm between expectation and reality can often be wider than anticipated. Perhaps you've also been part of projects that achieved their immediate objectives but fell short of realising their promised benefits. We've all been there, from internal infrastructure projects that failed to streamline processes in quite the way we'd hoped to customer-facing deliveries that didn't ignite the market. And, hands held high, I've been there too in some of my own ventures.

So, what do we do when we find ourselves in this situation? Do we throw up our hands and toss everything away, baby and bathwater alike? Or do we seek to learn, adjust, and bounce back stronger? Here are two key points to consider:

1) Challenge the Business Case: Before embarking on a project, it is vital to scrutinise the original business case and the projected benefits rigorously. These should be tested and examined, drawing on as much evidence and as many sources as feasible. There will, however, be times when it's not possible to gather all the evidence we'd like. In these cases, we may need to take a leap of faith, but even then, this leap should be informed. Here are some quick suggestions;

  1. Market Assumptions: Assess the understanding of market size, trends, and competitive landscape. Are these assumptions supported by reliable data? Why are you seeing a gap others haven't, and what is it that you uniquely bring to the table that others can't (sometimes called the 'unfair advantage').

  2. Find Early Adoptors To Test the Business Case: Find the customers that will pay for your product or the internal users that are keen to use it right up front. The outcome should be something that people will want to "pull" from you, not have thrust upon them. So, if there is real enthusiasm from those whom it is designed for, find them. Not a salesman, not the idea originator, but someone entirely independent that gets excited (not just lukewarm to be polite) about the prospect of the delivery. You probably need to refactor your thinking if you can't find them.

  3. Benefit Projections: Review the projected benefits. Are these backed up by robust data and research? Are the benefits quantifiable, and is there a plan to measure them over time? Exactly what problem are you solving, and for whom? It's often said, but there's an absolute truth in this. Ask it over and over until you 100% know the answer.

  4. Cost Estimates and Timeframe: Evaluate the cost estimates and proposed timeline. Are they realistic or overly optimistic? Do they account for potential delays and all associated costs? Your idea may be a killer one, but your ROI might drop through the floor if it costs you double to deliver it, thereby scuppering any benefits.

  5. Feasibility: ITIL teaches us that services/products need to be looked at in two lights; Warranty and Utility. 'Utility' refers to the functionality of a service that meets a particular need or provides a specific benefit, often summed up as "what the service does". 'Warranty' refers to the assurance that a product or service will meet agreed requirements, encapsulating aspects such as availability, capacity, security, and continuity, essentially answering "how it is delivered". So often, we focus on one but miss the other. I've more than once been caught in a project that totally underestimated the Utility aspects, and they came crashing down after delivery. Imagine a mobile phone; it can have greater features, bells and whistles, but if the battery lasts an hour or the coverage is poor, then the whole thing is a failure. Many years ago, I delivered a project (under direct instruction!) to give field workers laptops to help their reporting and admin. The laptops proved unwieldy, slow to start, difficult to connect and didn't work offline at all. We had to pull 40+ units out of the field and replace them with tablets and new software that worked offline. Once that was done, the whole thing was a huge success, and the benefits were amazing to the workers, enhancing their workday hugely.

  6. 'Bear Pit' Ideas with Stakeholders: 'Bear-pitting' in a business context refers to a rigorous evaluation method in which an idea or proposal is presented to experts or critical thinkers for intense questioning and scrutiny. The process aims to uncover potential flaws, strengthen the idea, and prepare for any challenges it may face in implementation. Check if the project aligns with the company's broader strategic goals and if all key stakeholders are on board. Business ideas.

2) Learn and Refactor: Just because a project doesn't deliver the anticipated benefits doesn't mean that all is lost. Far from it. Remember, many great successes have come from learning from missteps, refactoring, adjusting, and then coming back stronger. Consider Edison and his legendary multitude of attempts before inventing a functional light bulb. Or J.K. Rowling, who was rejected multiple times before Harry Potter became a global sensation. Even certain films, initially dismissed as flops, like Blade Runner, eventually found their audience and are now considered classics. Failure is the pathway to success.

Remember, if a project doesn't achieve the anticipated benefits, it doesn't necessarily equate to total failure. Yes, it can be disheartening, especially when you've invested so much time and energy into the project. But rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, which I've seen over and over again, consider reframing this experience as an opportunity to learn, improve, adapt, and come back stronger.

So the next time you're faced with a business case that didn't live up to its promises, take a deep breath and a step back. Look for the lessons, refactor your strategy, and remember that it's not the end of the world. Instead, it could be the beginning of something even better. After all, sometimes, the path to success is paved with stepping stones of unmet benefits.


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