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Evidence Rules

Evidence Rules

Successful business cases have strong supporting data backing them up. Here are some tips for effective evidence building.

Business cases done right are powerful tools. When they include impressive-looking tangible benefits, powerful intangibles and clear business alignments, they gain attention.

But all is for naught if no one believes them. That's why getting the evidence right is a crucial step when building a successful business case. Weak evidence spawns distrust from inherently sceptical decision-makers, thus heightening the risk of rejection of business case recommendations. While losing the funding is bad enough, the harm to the reputation of the people who created the business case can be even deeper. The trustworthiness - even honesty - of these individuals may be called into question on other issues. Fortunately, evidence building is a skill that is easy to strengthen. Just as lawyers must prove their cases based on evidence believable to judge and jury, CIOs and their teams must argue the evidence to other executives to prove a business case. Try these five "courtroom savvy" techniques for making your evidence the best possible.

1. Know when evidence is most needed. Controversial conclusions around central themes of the business case need strong proof statements. Also watch out for unsupported statements you consider self-evident; others may beg to differ. For example, rather than boldly asserting that "more fact-based management is a key to success", buttress your declaration with strong supporting evidence, such as "Last year's 'Top Business Practices' survey of 25 industry CEOs revealed that analytic-focused management was the number-two driver of superior shareholder return". Sensitivity analysis can also point to areas needing sound evidence. For example, if an important calculation, such as dealing with improvement in employee turnover, is highly sensitive to variations in its value, take the extra time to find support concerning why the specific quantity selected is trustworthy.

2. Decide how strong the evidence must be. The more surprising, arguable or obscure a business case claim, the better the evidence must be. The American legal system provides some guidance: In courts of law, as well as in "courts" of IT investment funding, reliable evidence must be material (that is, relevant to the issue at hand) and directly affect the probability that the claim is true. In these courts, evidence comes in multiple flavours. Direct evidence, such as that from trusted colleagues or subject matter experts, is usually the most powerful. Circumstantial evidence (such as third-party surveys reported in public records) can also be useful, although often less effective than direct evidence. Hearsay is the least desirable. For example, if a proposal for a new system asserts a controversial claim that customers will make 5 per cent larger purchases, and such a claim is central to the power of the business case, then taking the time and effort to focus on direct evidence is best.

3. Know the rules of evidence. Unlike courts of law, the rules of evidence for business cases are often unspoken. Don't tolerate this situation. All decision-makers carry in their heads a set of rules concerning what they consider as admissible and not admissible for business case evidence. Does your CEO give great weight to evidence from industry trade associations in which he is active or to surveys from his blue-ribbon business school alma mater? Uncover the other executives' preferred types of evidence by asking them directly or by studying evidence characteristics of investment proposals they have supported.

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