Today, many companies expect managers to produce a business case to justify major purchases or investment requirements for new operational projects. But what should you include? Here’s a straightforward guide for maintenance engineers.

Plan to succeed
It all starts with a clearly defined strategy. To be successful, it’s vital to demonstrate that what you’re proposing aligns with your organisation’s corporate strategy. Avoid getting over-technical – the people you are talking to are almost certainly not maintenance engineers.

The founder and CEO of software development company Aha!, Brian de Haaff, outlines seven guiding principles to ensure your business case is compelling. Here is his checklist:

1. Define the opportunity – what is the problem you will solve?
2. Assess what makes you unique – describe how the company is well equipped to solve that problem.
3. Describe your approach – how will you be able to solve the problem in a new way?
4. Estimate the cost – draw on past product investments to ground your figures.
5. Project the return – show the value of what you will get back.
6. Analyse the risks – make sure you think them through, from every angle.
7. Share open questions – feedback is important to enable you to improve your ideas.

The process, de Haaff argues, is a pathway to maximising your chances of success. “You are advocating for something new, so you need to take the time to research what makes the opportunity unique and think critically about its viability. You may not get a blank cheque – but I bet you will be closer to getting an emphatic ‘yes’,” he says.

Richard Jeffers, Managing Director for RS Industria at RS Group, agrees that getting your message across is the key to success. “You have to be clear from the outset about what you want to do. Communication skills are absolutely critical because you’ve got to communicate why you're doing it.”

Communicate with confidence
The Harvard Business Review (HBR) surveyed 100 professionals ranging from engineers to software developers to find out how they fared with making and promoting their business case. The HBR researchers found that most managers struggle to sell their ideas at the top level. A lack of confidence in communicating ideas sometimes makes employees reluctant to even try.

There are also challenges when it comes to how senior leaders receive business plans. HBR cites studies showing senior executives often dismiss good ideas from other parts of the business because they can’t see how they will improve their organisation’s performance.

Jeffers says that, in his experience, maintenance engineers often approach business leaders in the wrong way. They tend to focus on what needs to be done without explaining the full consequences of the business disruption that could come by not doing enough.

"You need to talk about risk as well as the value of what you want to do"Richard Jeffers, Managing Director for RS Industria, RS Group

It’s one thing to ask for more planned downtime, but the response may be that the company cannot afford the lost production time. To strengthen their case, maintenance engineers need to clearly outline the business exposures associated with a breakdown if the action they propose is not taken. “You need to talk about risk as well as the value of what you want to do,” he says.

Talking the language of business leaders
This cuts both ways. You may need to rein in the maintenance engineering jargon as well as adopting some of the language of the boardroom in order to push the buttons that will encourage the buy-in you want. Consider carefully what your audience needs to know and don’t baffle them with complex and possibly unnecessary technical information they may not understand.

“Maintenance engineers are not always well versed in the language of business,” says Jeffers, who has been through the business planning process at a high level many times in his career and learned a few things along the way.

“Corporate governance is all about managing risk, and the minute you turn your business plan into a conversation about risk, then you're voicing all the buzzwords that the corporate functions are there to manage. Next you talk about money, or value as it’s known in polite company. The value of mitigating risk is additional time in production, which can be translated into additional product inventory or a reduction in overtime.”

These are all things the C-suite wants to hear, and will certainly help sway them in favour of your proposal.

Penny Taylor, who leads the Writing Effective Business Proposals course at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, agrees that presenting your idea in the right way is key to success. “Generally, engineers are not good at persuasive writing, they are good with facts and figures. I often hear engineers I am working with say, ‘I expect the numbers to speak for themselves’ and they don’t appreciate that you have to make the numbers tell a story,” she says.

“Being able to write a compelling business proposal is a key skill for engineers who need to get resources to support the developments they are working on.“

You may be presenting a business plan, but you must also deliver a compelling and relatable story to the decision makers. Make your pitch with confidence and present your idea as a solution to risks that will create additional value to the business. Take note of what the communication experts have said. The way in which you present your vision could be the difference between success and failure.