The case for change: why the intangible benefits are important

Speculating on the potential value of a new way of working, a new service or set of tools can often be tricky. Estimating the potential benefits case for any new initiative, or even gaining support and approval to try something new, can often be an infuriating and troublesome endeavour. But is it possible to build the case for change by simply starting to change?

I’ve written more business cases than I care to count. Every single one of them has been in a different format, with a slight variation on the same sorts of headings and, whilst most of them ended up being approved, the road to getting them there was not always that straight forward. The one thing I learned along the way was that in reality, it didn’t matter that much what content I put in the business case, or how good an idea it was, what mattered most were three things:

  1. How much it cost (and whether the budget was available)
  2. The return on investment (and the speed of that return)
  3. Support from the decision makers

Logic would perhaps dictate that cost, then return, then support would be the logical order of importance in the eventual decision. If you’re a Finance Director, look away now!

My experience is that it is the support of decision makers that matters most. They will care about cost and return, sure, but if you can convince senior stakeholders in your organisation to care passionately about the idea, you’ll find that they will often fight your battles for you and drive the investment case without ever reading a single page.

I can say this from experience, as someone who has written cases for tens of millions of pounds that have gone through acres of red tape approvals (you should have seen the spreadsheets). I’ve also walked into a CEOs office and fifteen minutes later walked out with approval to run long on my headcount and re-purpose an entire (approved) project budget for something completely different. End to end that last one went from idea to execution in less than 24 hours – quite a stressful afternoon for my project manager!

In both extremes I practised one very delicate art. Influencing. I didn’t convince that CEO to change direction by having a pretty PowerPoint with charts and graphs and statistical data proving beyond all doubt that my suggestion was the right one. I did it by convincing them first that I was credible, and then second by seeding all of the emotional attachments to the idea for change. The intangible benefits.

The key to successful leadership today is influencing, not authority. – Ken Blanchard

Influencing people should, in my opinion, be the number one skill that all change management professionals list on the CV. I rarely see it. It is also the number one skill that you need to be an effective sponsor or accountable executive.

So how do you do it? One that comes in handy is something that I learned from my very first job in financial services, as a call centre agent collecting credit card debt. What’s In It For Me (WIIFM)? was a key principle driven home with every new starter at the bank.

It was simple really; it’s easy to work out why the bank wants the customer to repay their credit card debt but what’s in it for the customer? We would approach every conversation assuming that the customer couldn’t pay anything, or wouldn’t want to, and then engineer the conversation to help us understand what the customer was motivated by. Once we understood that, we could place the repayment of the credit card debt in a context that the customer could relate to and, usually, come to some form of arrangement.

Remove yourself from the idea for a moment, put yourself in the key decision makers shoes and ask yourself, why would I want this?. Also ask yourself why they wouldn’t want to support this idea. Find the conflicts of interest and objections and you’re starting to get somewhere.

The answers to these questions are where you start. If you don’t know what’s important to the decision maker, find out, and fast. Speak to people that know them better, read anything they’ve communicated to the organisation recently, find a strategy paper for their area – however you do it doesn’t matter, just get an understanding of what’s going on in their head. Discount any perceptions of what you think should be important to them as this won’t help you. Starting a conversation with hey, you should really be worried about this before addressing what someone is currently worried about is a good way to get yourself spun back out the door (trust me, I know).

Second thing; now that you know what’s important to them, challenge your idea against it. Does it, or can it, solve any of the existing concerns, or does it create something new to worry about? Can you help with any of the other problems as well, and create a shared set of goals? Kick your original idea hard – better you than someone else.

Thirdly, challenge your own credibility in this decision makers mind. Do they know you, or know of you? Why would they listen to you? If you don’t think you have the necessary gravitas with this individual, don’t worry, your options are either to build it by getting more involved and delivering solutions to their existing problems (takes time but has lots of spin off benefits – particularly if being used as a way to understand their current concerns better) or to use others to help you influence them. That may be getting someone else to pitch your idea for, or with, you or it might involve you pitching your idea to someone else who can then introduce you as a knowledgeable and reliable authority.

The larger the scale of change you’re proposing, the greater number of interested parties there will be. The more decision makers, the more times you will need to repeat this process. Whilst that may seem daunting, it’s important to realise that, in reality, this is really a domino effect. Go after the low hanging fruit first; those you know best and have a relationship with, or who will most likely be supportive of your idea. Line them up and then engage them to help you win round the others. Get their advice and support to help you introduce the concept of your idea.

Notice that, at this point, I haven’t mentioned numbers once. So what are the winning arguments if the numbers aren’t the answer? Well, that will depend on your business model but some possible answers are:

  • Better Customer experience
  • Greater brand awareness
  • More Process efficiency (time savings)
  • Higher colleague satisfaction
  • Regulatory or legislative compliance
  • Lower complaint volumes

Some of these can be quantified, either as revenue or cost realisation but most are largely intangible and difficult to pin a number to. They can however be used to bring to life in the minds of your key stakeholders just how important and exciting your grand idea could be.

Finally, there is one more thing you can always put on the table when trying to persuade an organisation to prioritise and fund a significant change. Start small, and prove the concept. Build a prototype, run a small pilot or simulate a customer experience. Make it real and walk people through it. Get real customer, or potential customer, feedback if you can.

And remember that, for the majority of people in business, it’s about winning both hearts and minds. Just don’t forget one in favour of the other.