Strengthening a business case with concept discovery

Outcomes from an upfront concept discovery phase can go a long way to strengthen a business case and get it over the line. A business case that's pitched with a high degree of certainty and forward momentum really influences how it's received and ultimately, its success.

  Post by Paul Morris • Jan 27, 2020
Concept discovery  Concept design  Pretotyping  Business case  Project management

When building a case for a new project in front of an organisation’s executive team, the primary goal is to present the case in the best possible light. At a minimum, a business case should demonstrate an understanding of the project’s intended return on investment, budget, cost breakdowns, timeframes, risks, and resourcing profile.

Typically, project managers address these items based on assumptions and formulas that often derive from corporate business case templates. Thus, the business case assessment ends up grounded in forecasts and assumptions. This makes it rather dry — but worse than that, it doesn't make for a very strong case either.

Such untested assumptions can compromise the accuracy of the information within the business case, regardless of the number of revisions made. There just might be a better way, however. A business case’s quality can be greatly improved, and thus its chances of success by completing the business case after concept discovery through the act of ... pretotyping. Yes you read that right, it's NOT a typo ;)

First up, what is concept discovery?

Concept discovery is the process of creating and testing multiple solution alternatives (in the form of concept pretotypes — defined below) in order to determine the one(s) that best meets the needs of the organisation, before commencing work on design and development.

Instead of jumping straight into what the team might think of as the ideal solution, concept discovery allows for an exploration and testing of multiple solutions rapidly and cost-effectively upfront, thereby ensuring that work is done on the right problem and the right solution.

Concept discovery results in a series of learnings that can be transferred into the business case and shared with the project delivery team that will execute the project.

PrEtotype vs prOtotype

The term pretotype was first coined by Alberto Savoia in his book Pretotype It : Make sure you are building The Right It before you build It right. He defines it as: "Testing the initial appeal and actual usage of a potential new product by simulating its core experience with the smallest possible investment of time and money."

Concept pretotypes should only incorporate the absolute minimum features and screens since its sole purpose is to validate assumptions and determine the probability of success. Pretotypes answer the question: Would people be interested in the product?

On the other hand, prototypes are a more detailed representation of a solution. It usually considers screen flows, interactions, detailed screen layouts and in some cases, animation effects or color schemes. Prototypes are typically non-functional simulations, though some are indeed functional. Prototypes answer the question: Can the product be built?

Prototypes often take longer to put together and cost more to produce than their (lesser-known) pretotype siblings.

In the real world

A recent government client of ours had a rather large laundry list of features that were deemed in scope for the first version of the product. The testing of a prototype with the full range of user representatives was not necessary to spot patterns and form insights into user behavior. Similarly, it was also unnecessary to capture every single feature in a pretotype in order to validate whether the concept was sound.

Therefore, we ended up focusing on four primary features, with 2 screens rendered per feature. We then produced a couple of variations on the design of these features. These proved more than enough to communicate the essence of the concept to its intended audience (and stakeholders) and subsequently test the shortlisted features that would "make or break" its success in order to derive necessary insights.

It more than adequately answered the question: would people be interested in the product?

The value pretotyping brings to the table

Concept pretotypes provide the perfect starting point to begin learning about what works and what doesn’t using data collected from simple tests or experiments. This process begins the de-risking of projects by developing a deeper and more accurate understanding of various components of project delivery.

Let's take a look at the main benefits of pretotyping:

Validation of customer demand

Gauging support for a project at this stage (pre-business case) allows for the incorporation of both quantitative and qualitative data into a business case. This data reinforces to decision-makers both the value of the project and its likely reception among its intended audience. Instead of finding out in the design phase during project execution, it can be understood well enough up front, and any research and testing conducted during the design phase can be used to delve deeper.

Clearer backlog prioritisation

Based on the user results of experiments and tests, it will become clearer which items to deliver first and foremost and which can be scheduled for later. This can have a significant impact on cost and timing, helping to get a business case over the line. To extend the example from earlier, we realised that we could cut our laundry list of features by two-thirds, based on the fact that our shortlisted features would go such a long way in delivering the intended value proposition. This discovery ended up reducing the originally planned timeline for the first release by almost 50%.

Reveals risks

Experiments and tests can raise awareness of risks and issues prior to execution. On the flip side, certain risks or issues may no longer be relevant, bolstering the confidence of decision-makers in the business case. To again extend the prior example, we anticipated quite early on that the involvement of another government department would mitigate the risk of one of our main features. Thus, we ended up establishing a relationship very early on, so that we could secure their involvement and get a headstart in understanding not only how they operate but also any potential risks or issues. This collaboration proved invaluable throughout the project.

More accurate budget, schedule, and resource estimates

Experiments and tests may conclude that either additional resources might be required (based on feature prioritisation, for example) or that the opposite may be true, as was the case with our government client. Either way, the business case will benefit from a more accurate assessment of costing and timing.

More accurate return on investment estimates

A solid understanding of all of the above (particularly cost and time estimates) allows for more accuracy in forecasting the return on investment for an organisation. This information can instill more confidence in the project among decision-makers, or allow them to consider alternative courses of action. For our government client, the executive team responsible for signing off on the project had a high degree of confidence that the project would succeed, and the focus of the discussions for business case approval were mostly centered on delivery details.

Getting started with concept discovery

It's critical that decision-makers and members of the project team fully understand and support the value of the concept discovery process throughout. You're really taking them on a journey more than anything else. Here are 5 steps to get you started:

1. Secure stakeholder buy-in

The points mentioned in the benefits section immediately above can be included in a simple slide deck that can be presented at key meetings with the project team and stakeholders to make them aware of the value they'll receive from concept discovery right from the get-go.

2. Schedule a concept discovery workshop

Begin by framing and defining the problem or opportunity, what success looks like and any known assumptions. From here, you'll be ready to generate ideas for numerous solution alternatives (in the form of concept pretotypes) to test.

Hint: The Concept Canvas can help here — a lot ;)

3. Devise experiments and conduct tests

Create targetted experiments for each concept and run the tests with a sample size of users or customers.

4. Gather and interpret results

Once the data has been captured from the experiments, proceed to interpret results, develop insights, and determine whether concepts can be combined or eliminated. Capture the outcomes of the interpretation of these results and document them as learnings.

5. Incorporate learnings into the business case

In various sections throughout the business case, the concept discovery process can be referenced to support the information in the presentation. It’s a good idea to include, as an appendix, the details of the testing and experimentation process (e.g. testing types, sample sizes, tested items/features).

If an organisation is new to concept discovery and pretotyping in general, then it’s a good idea to master this approach with a few projects first. Later on, concept discovery can be embedded more permanently into the culture and methodology (the organisation’s project delivery framework).

The outcomes from the experiments give a solid indication of which direction to pursue, and now a summary of the findings between the solution alternatives can be shown in the business case, along with detailed information about the preferred solution and its advantages.


Concept discovery allows for more accurate business cases, backed with real research giving business cases the best chance of success. This provides decision-makers with the certainty they need to move forward with the project. Furthermore, it allows for a solid understanding of what is to be built and how best to go about it.

What I personally love most about concept discovery is that the process in and of itself helps organisations become more innovative. More innovation means increased opportunities to create new sources of revenue, capture new customers, discover new ways to delight existing customers, and ensure that the organisation maintains a compelling advantage.

Now *that* is the ultimate cherry on top for any business case 🍒

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