Introduction to 'why' and 'what'
Understanding the 'why'
Everything you do, you do for a reason, and doing a project should be no different. Essentially, the reason you are doing something is the answer to the question 'Why are you doing this?' 'Why?' is simple and easy to ask, yet the answer can alter what you do, how you do it, and how you think about something. It is, unfortunately, a question that we do not ask enough.
In established businesses the definition of why something is done often exists in a formal document known as a business case, and may be called the business rationale or business benefit. Alternatively it might be called the business objective. Whatever it is called, you only need a concise understanding of why a project is being done a short statement or one sentence is usually enough. The purpose is not to verify the definition of why, but to get an understanding of it.
Good examples of simple, clear, concise statements of why you are doing something are:
Defining the 'why' needs to be precise. Small differences in the definition can make significant differences in what you end up doing. For example, the following two statements are quite similar, but what you would do as a result could be significantly different:
To fulfil the first, your project might fit more shelves into the shop, whereas in the second you could end up doing the opposite and having less in the shop and making it feel airy and stylish.
A word of caution: often people start out by knowing what they are going to do, because this is what they want to do irrespective of the reason. When asked the question 'why?', they make up an answer that fits the situation and which is most palatable to the person they are talking to. This is dangerous as someone else hearing the 'why' may determine to do a completely different 'what'. For example, a business colleague may say the reason he is raising his prices is to increase his margins by 10 per cent. If he really wants to increase margins and not revenues, then this could also be done by reducing costs. If he asks someone to increase margins, on the assumption they are going to increase prices, he may be surprised when he finds that instead some staff have been fired to reduce costs.
The answer to the question 'why' is fundamental and should not be engineered to fit the 'what' 'what' must be derived from it.
It is often argued that if you are responsible for the 'what', you do not even need to know the 'why'. Many project managers only ever discuss what the project is, and never why they are doing it, which is short-sighted. You can say you don't need to understand why you are doing something and still do it quite well. This is sometimes true, but often it is very useful to understand why you are doing something. It helps to motivate and drive you and other members of your project; most people perform better not when they blindly do things, but when they know why they are doing them. Knowing why you are doing something also assists in checking what you are doing is actually worthwhile and in ensuring that you are making the best decisions as you go along.
I have seen many projects in which people have got so fascinated or bogged down in doing what they planned to do, that they did the wrong things because they didn't know or lost sight of why they were doing it. For example, I remember a project involving moving staff from an office to a new location. Responsibility for finding and negotiating a contract on offices was duly handed out. The department responsible for new offices focused excitedly on the core negotiations with landlords. They did what they thought was a fantastic deal, and got bargain-priced offices in the new location. However, one of the reasons the project was started was to improve staff morale and retention. Staff morale and retention problems arose because of the old office location, and also because of the environment in the offices. The new offices weren't bad, but they did not live up to the expectations of an exciting new environment which had been set with the staff. By taking on cheap offices, staff morale declined rather than improved! The negotiator did a very good job if the 'why' had been what he assumed it was, 'save as much money as you can on our rent'. Had the negotiator kept his eye on the real 'why', the deal done would have been very different.
Understanding the 'what'
Once you know why you are doing your project, you need to understand what the outcome or deliverable from your project must be to enable you to achieve your 'why'. For example, if the reason why you are doing your project is to increase your company's sales, then what you must deliver must be something to increase sales such as a new product. Alternatively, if the reason why you are doing your project is to allow your business to expand, then what you must deliver is whatever will allow your business to expand such as new larger offices.
It is obvious that to complete a project you need to understand what it is meant to deliver. However, we don't always think the obvious and too often jump into doing things without worrying if they are the right things. If you have ever started a project without understanding what the purpose is, don't worry, you are in good company. If I was given 50 for every project I have reviewed and found out that no one really understood what the outcome of the project was to be, I would be a very wealthy man.
If you get the Project Definition right, you will make the rest of your job much, much easier. If you don't, you are risking disaster. The time to get it right is now.
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