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Ethical Theory is Nice, But How Do I Actually Build a Business Case?

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I’ve had some follow up questions to my talk on building business cases for accessibility, and it seemed worth aggregating and publishing my responses more widely.

You can watch the talk or read the post for more details, but the high level summary is that accessibility is a good (and justifiable) business goal, but it can be complicated to incorporate less tangible things like ethical outcomes and trade-offs into our decisions.

Here are some great resources about practical ethics in the workplace:

  1. Defining Moments by Joseph Badaracco
  2. Ethics for People on the Move by Catherine Baird

However, most of the followup questions have asked for more explicit resources around how to build a business case centered around accessibility. Unfortunately, I found the resources in this area to be a bit more sparse (which is part of why I wanted to give the talk!)

My day job isn’t focused on accessibility, but it is research. In preparation for my talk, I did an extensive amount of research on the intersection of business cases and accessibility. What that research made clear is that every company will have different answers, so the first challenge is to determine what the right questions are.

The following framing questions represent a useful starting point for anyone looking to address accessibility in their business decisions.

Have a specific request.

What are you trying to accomplish?

  • What problem are you trying to solve?
  • What is your desired outcome?
  • Who benefits from your efforts, or in other words, who is your target audience? (Take a look at the talk for more thoughts around the potential reach/impact of accessibility.)

What does “backing” look like?

  • What kind of financial/logistical support do you need?
  • How long do you expect this to take?
  • Who needs to be involved?

Have a specific goal that relates to an organizational priority.

For better or worse (usually worse…), business cases are rarely driven exclusively by “doing the right thing.” Build a successful business case by weaving your accessibility goals into your organization values.

How do the goals of your project align with organizational priorities?

  • How does accessibility fit into your overall company mission and values? Your company has probably published statements around their values; there may be some specific operating goals you can tie into, or you might want to look for more general language around being good corporate citizens.
  • Has your leadership team made statements about accessibility or inclusion that you can point towards to help bolster your case?

What are potential direct cost impacts?

  • What resources do you need to do this?
  • How does this tie into your current efforts? Is this a complementary project/feature or are you trying to pursue something new?
  • Are there opportunity costs (namely foregone features or project timelines) to adding this project?

What about indirect impacts? Sometimes specifics in this section can be intimidating. Don’t panic if you don’t know how to quantify all this: instead start out by mentally running through all the departments of your company and thinking about why they might care about your proposal.

  • Sales: Does this help you reach a wider audience? Are there potential revenue, deal size, or contract duration impacts?
  • Customer success: Would your project impact overall user experience? Does this help you increase retention?
  • Finance/accounting: How do projected costs compare to the status quo?
  • HR: Cause-driven work can sometimes help with things like better employee engagement, lower turnover, or provide new recruitment avenues.
  • Marketing/PR: Are there positive press opportunities associated with your proposal? (or on the flip side, any negative PR risks from not acting?)
  • Legal: Are any of the risks you foresee things your legal/comms teams might care about?

Remember that companies are comprised of people.

An alternative caption for this section is: Make it easy for your boss to look good.

What your company believes it values is found in your company’s mission/values or statements from your leadership team. What your company actually values is found in your performance reviews.

Tying your cause into aspirational values is good, but if you can make a case that your project can help your boss look better in their next performance reviews, all the better.

In general, try to find a way for this to be a win-win for your boss. Try to understand what their various pressure points might be; yes, bosses care about not going over budget or delivering a set of features on schedule, but they also care about a lot of other things.

Do you have a sense of what those other things might be? Can you frame your request so you’re not just asking for resources, but instead are partnering with them on meeting mutual goals?

Do you have any social proof?

  • Have you talked with people directly impacted by your accessibility concerns? What do they have to say?
  • Are your competitors doing anything particular notable in this area? (This can either be something great where you’re lagging, or something lackluster in the marketplace where you can differentiate.)
  • Is this related to any broader industry causes / organizations?
  • Do you have support of any teammates or other groups?
  • Is there anyone highly visible (either internally or externally) that is championing this cause?

Have you thought through possible alternatives?

What trade-offs are involved?

  • What is the status quo? Are there risks to action? Are there risks to inaction?
  • Are there alternative paths forward? What are the pros/cons of other options?
  • Are there competing ethical priorities? (This is another great place to go look at the full talk for more details!)

What levels of risk/potential problems do you foresee with the proposed path? Your project managers probably have a risk assessment framework that you can use as a jumping off point.

Is it possible to get part of what you want if you can’t have it all?

  • Can you do your proposal at a reduced scale?
  • Can you do it in phases?
  • Can you do a subset of features?

Have a game plan if they say no.

  • If in spite of all of this they still say there’s no budget or no time in this sprint cycle, put this in a parking lot and arrange to revisit it before the next planning cycle.
  • Make note of all their objections and see if you can work to resolve them between now and then.
  • Remember that a no today is not necessarily a no forever.

I hope these questions help you frame your requests. If you have any favorite resources around putting together business cases, drop them in the comments!

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