Do you know why?

picture of the word whyWhy is it important?

Three things popped into my mind this week: a paper in the recent Sloan Management Review about the basic question every project should answer; a graphic in a book about project types due to Eddie Obeng; and recollections about reviewing projects. They all revolve around the question ‘why are we doing this project?’. The answer for a change project is the list of benefits! But obviously tackling the question is harder than you might think.

Sloan Management ReviewThe Question Every Project Team Should Answer

Lets start with the new academic paper by Karen A. Brown, Nancy Lea Hyer and Richard Ettenson in the Fall 2013 edition of the Sloan Management Review. The authors have carried out research on projects in organisations and found that many of them are not able to articulate an answer to the question: ‘why are we doing this project?’  As a result projects fail to deliver value to the organisation by either just failing to complete in a haze of confusion or deliver a completely inappropriate solution. Without a clear understanding of the problem that caused the project to be created how can a good solution arise. The authors appeal to a common decision making process and suggest the following key questions to get to the ‘why’:

  1. Identity: What is the problem?
  2. Location: Where do we see it?
  3. Timing: When does it occur or when did it begin?
  4. Magnitude: How big is this problem in measurable terms?

They help to focus and clarify what is the problem. And for many projects the research shows that the problem is that they don’t know what their problem is; even though they may have a solution!

Project Types — Eddie Obeng

Obeng Project TypeI have been reading a preview of a new book on Stakeholder Engagement called Practical People Engagement by Patrick Mayfield. In the chapter on how to do engagement Patrick introduces a model of project types as the communications will be different for each type of project. A project that doesn’t know why also doesn’t know what or how. It is in a dense fog of confusion and finds its team members wandering in different directions unaware of what their colleagues are doing. To know ‘what’ means the project has a solution to the problem (why); and to know ‘how’ means they know to how deliver the solution. Again the focus provided by this initial question is fundamental to success. I often find in reading assessments of project managers for our Project Management Overview award that the description of the business problem the project is addressing is woefully vague. If you can’t specify the question how can you determine the answer? If you don’t have a good specification of the problem how can you assess the quality of any solution? It is this dilemma that leads to my third mind item.

Assessing projects

In an earlier life I worked in an advanced research laboratory for Hewlett-Packard. One of the things I did there was develop an assessment method for research projects. A research project has considerable ambiguity and risk about its outcomes and business benefits. Never the less it is helpful to have some idea about which projects are making progress and have high potential against those that do not to support resource allocation. After a number of assessments one of my fellow assessors found there was a strong correlation between the overall result of the assessment (against several factors) and the amount of time it took the project manager to introduce the project to us and answer the question ‘what is this project about?’. It turns out that the longer the project manager took to answer the question, the lower the evaluation result and the lower the potential return on investment. In fact we quickly came to the rule of thumb that an introduction lasting 2 minutes or less gave a high potential return and if the project manager was still talking after five minutes it was worth terminating the assessment as the result was going to be poor.

The time taken to explain the project is directly correlated to how well the project team understood the problem, and potential solution, but mostly a crisp definition of the problem was more than enough to lead to a solution. So we came to the conclusion that progress in a research project was defined by increasing clarity in the definition of the problem and was measured by the time it takes to communicate the definition.

This means the ‘why’ question will take time to get to grips with and but the team must synthesise an answer as its first task. There is no point going on to the ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions if there is no clear answer to the ‘why’ question.

Do you find yourself looking at change projects in your business and find yourself asking: ‘if this is the solution, what is the problem?’; and find that no one has an answer?

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