Faculty Column: Does Your Project Have a Solid “Why”?

Courtesy: Thunderbird School of Global Management
Courtesy: Thunderbird School of Global Management

By Professor Karen Brown

The ideas in this article are drawn from: Brown, Hyer, and Ettenson, “The Question Every Project Team Must Answer,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Fall 2013.

Have you ever been involved in a project that didn’t have a compelling reason driving it into existence? A raison d’être? If you have worked on a seemingly pointless project, you are not alone.

In our research with several hundred teams in over 50 organizations from around the world, we have discovered that the prevalence of projects lacking what we call project “why statements” is of near epidemic proportion. People are doing things for the sake of doing them or because someone told them to do it, and they haven’t asked the right questions.

The first question every project manager should ask is “Why are we doing this?” Of course, if you are low in the hierarchy, you’ll need to ask the question very tactfully.

Imagine yourself on your first job out of Thunderbird. Your first task, almost without exception, will be a project. This is your chance to prove yourself, remove the training wheels from your Thunderbird MBA, and learn something about the company. You might find yourself jumping in feet first, focusing on the tasks to be accomplished. BUT, we recommend that you step on the brakes before taking the leap into project activity. Arrange a meeting with the project sponsor who handed you this assignment. Let’s say the project involves a new advertising campaign for an existing product. Here’s where you can differentiate yourself as a Thunderbird with solid critical thinking skills. A possible conversation might go like this:

You: “I’m honored to be assigned this project. It seems important and I’d like to do a good job.”

Boss: “I know you can do it. That’s why we hired you. Why are we having this meeting?”

You: “Before I jump into this, I’d like to gain a clearer picture of the current situation. If we need a new ad campaign, it would help me to know what problems led to the need for a new ad campaign.”

Boss: “We are losing market share with the product.”

You: “Can you give me some parameters? How much have we lost, in which segments has the loss been the worst, and when did the losses begin to appear?”

Boss: “We’ve lost 10% market share. It seems to be worse with the Generation Y market segment. It started six months ago.” (Most bosses won’t actually be able to answer these questions with this much certainty and clarity, so it is likely you’ll need to dig a little deeper!)

By asking these questions, and probing politely until you extract the information you need, you will have demonstrated that you know how to define a problem along four dimensions:

  1. Identity (What is it?)
  2. Location (Where is it?)
  3. Timing (When did it first appear, or when does it happen?)
  4. Magnitude (How big is it?)

Exploring the four dimensions of a compelling “why statement” can improve a project’s chances of success. The answers to these four questions will enable you to take a broad view of the problem driving the project, and will lead to a conversation about a wide range of causal factors. It is possible that something changed in the manufacturing of the product in the past six months, and it is now less appealing to the Gen Y audience. Or, perhaps a competitor is offering a product that is more appealing to the Gen Y audience. Either way, a new ad campaign is not a likely solution. So, your next step will be to conduct a thorough investigation of causal factors to ensure you are headed in the right direction. Of course, the boss wants you to demonstrate a can-do attitude, so you’ll need to hustle with this part of the analysis. Your next conversation with the boss can highlight what you’ve learned about causal factors, and what this leads you to believe about solutions. If you are lucky, the causal factors will lead you to a conclusion that a new ad campaign is the best solution, and the boss will be validated. If this doesn’t appear to be a solution that will rebuild market share, you’ll need to be very tactful with the boss when you suggest another approach. Perhaps problem causes will lead to recommendations focused on improving a manufacturing process or redesigning the product.

You will certainly have the option of just doing what you are told and developing a new ad campaign, and you might be able to demonstrate that you completed the project on time and within budget. Customers might like the new campaign. But, if market share doesn’t recover, you will not have solved the problem that drove the project into existence in the first place. So, step up and ask the “why” question at the front end. You will distinguish yourself from others at your career stage who are either afraid to ask why or don’t know they should ask why.

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