The Lies We Tell Ourselves

My recent explorations of “why” are continuing to generate a lot of exploration, discussion and comment. And my ongoing work has continued to generate interesting insights. It’s astonishing how important “why?” is as a question. It’s also remarkable that people  who ask “why?” are often seen as part of the problem. But if we are really honest, many of us are not terribly crazy about answering why, either.

As a case study, I’ve been working through a number of workshops with a group of professionals who are in the process of planning and framing a series of projects. One of the most difficult questions for them to answer has been the theoretically very simple one of, “Why is the organization doing this project?”

The journey of each project to date is that it has been identified and defined as an opportunity. It has been presented in response to a strategic plan that states where the organization wants to go. It has been sold alongside every other opportunity to the management team as a compelling thing to do. It has been prioritized. It has been deemed sufficient priority to be given time, money and people. At this point, “why?” should be pretty much self explanatory.

And yet, it isn’t. And that’s an interesting insight into how many approaches to strategic planning—and worse, portfolio management—are defined. The exercise should be defining the critical and compelling projects that actually move the organization forward towards its goals. In other words, the conversation should essentially state “because this is where we are trying to get to, these are the essential changes that we need to make.”

Instead, to varying degrees of transparency or opacity, the activity is often one of “I think we should do this project; this is how I justify it in the context of the priorities the organization has said that it cares about.” Project approval becomes an exercise in rhetoric and positioning, selling executive teams on why individual preferred projects should receive organizational blessing.

What this highlights is an important but not-wholly-self-evident truth. Projects that are defined in response to strategic imperatives get their “why” for free. Projects that rationalize their importance struggle for “why.” Which is the reason that we battle after the fact to explain why the project even exists. Very often the reason is not too far off of a relatively flailing “because.” Or at least “because the organization prioritized it and it got funded.”

While that may be true, it doesn’t frame or define why you should do the project, and why the project matters. The problem is that once you’ve gotten to this point, any challenges to “why” are going to appear to be threats. This is the real reason that those who ask “why” get viewed as the problem, not the solution.

At this point, when challenged on why we are doing a particular project, it can be difficult to come up with a plausible answer. More often than not, that’s because if we were truthful about the why:

  • We wouldn’t be doing this.
  • We wouldn’t be doing it this way.
  • We would be doing other things as well.
  • We would be implementing in a different what than we are doing,
  • We might be doing something else entirely.

It’s important to note that I’m not being judgemental and I’m not being critical. I am endeavouring to be incredibly honest. Because if we are not clear about why projects exist, we probably genuinely shouldn’t do them. At the very least, a strong case can be made that it’s irresponsible to do the project until we are clear about the “why.”

Not having a clear “why” at the outset is what allows innumerable and immeasurable other bad choices to be made along the way. It’s what allows projects to be saddled with additional expectations. It is the very essence of where scope creep comes from. And it is the reason that project success becomes impossible to measure.

As an illustration, there used to be an audit report (it’s sadly been deleted) on the City of Calgary website in Alberta, Canada (and I could have chosen many other examples; this one is the one that simply came first to mind). The project in question is the widening of a road known as 16th Ave North, one of the main arteries of the city (and in fact part of the Trans-Canada Highway).

Given traffic volumes, the project was theoretically initiated to expand the roadway and increase overall capacity. Over the course of its life, it got burdened with several additional expectations as a result of public consultations and political imperatives. What start life as a traffic management project became a proxy for community development, beautification, economic development and arguably the scoring of political points. The end result was that the project finished $20 million over budget, 2.5 years late and with substantial elements of the original scope not being completed.

Without starting—and staying with—a clear why, this particular project took on a life of its own. Various stakeholders—with a wide array of agendas—drove the evolution of the project. And while the end result arguably made a number of stakeholders happy, that came at a price. The audit report was not pretty. It indicted administration for a failure to manage the changes and demonstrate evidence of proper project management, even though every amendment and budget increase was in reality presented to and approved by Council. Political imperatives were met, but procedural expectations were not adhered to.

This is not an isolated case. Projects like this occur all the time. They get started for good—or at least plausible—reasons, and then they get burdened with additional and unrealistic expectations. Because we lose sight of—or never develop a firm grasp on—why we are doing the project in the first place, expectations all too easily shift and flow. The answer to “why?” builds a solid and immovable foundation, when it’s maintained properly. Failure to define “why?” in the first place simply means that we are building on a foundation of sand, and it will inevitably move with the first stiff breeze.

The obvious insight from this is that projects should start by defining why they are being done. Optimally, they should be logical extensions of a well-conceived and practically constructed strategy that pragmatically defines the actions and changes necessary to realize the organization’s desired future. That’s wonderful when it happens, but it’s rare enough that this occurs as to be the noteworthy exception, not the expected norm.

Practically speaking, then, what are our options? What strategies can we take to define, maintain, revisit or redefine our understanding of “why” when our projects may not have started out on the best or most practical of footings?

In some instances, our why doesn’t align. We may have many whys, beholden to a multitude of stakeholders. Arguably, this was the situation that the City of Calgary found itself in on the 16 Ave North project. This was not a failure of project management, this was an inability to define—and to maintain—a cohesive and coherent intent in the face of shifting stakeholder expectations. And this is not just a challenge of municipalities, or of governments. Every organization is political by nature. There are numerous factions with varying agendas competing for time, attention, resources and support. That isn’t rare; it’s just life.

What is required in the face of reality is a level of will to be clear and purposeful about what the project is about. If that has never been defined, then we need to GET clear and purposeful about what the project is about. The varying views of our various stakeholders need to be brought into alignment and agreement. How that is done is going to vary, and will rely on some combination of collaboration, consensus, conciliation and outright edict. But there needs to be one clear “why?” Then, and only then, is it safe to embark on the more pragmatic and practical questions of “what?” and “how?”

In other instances, we may have started with a why, but we find ourselves in a place where that expectation is no longer relevant. Virtually every project that started in 2007 or so became irrelevant or challenged in the face of the global financial crisis. The Taurus project started by the London Stock Exchange was an early and exceptional example of a project that made tremendous sense at the outset, but because of evolution of practices and market pressures resulted in wasting hundreds of millions of pounds.

When we no longer value our why, we need to have the bravery and honesty to say so. This does indeed require courage, because in many cases we are walking back from something we have sold as essential and imperative for organizational success. We have to face the pressure that we’ve already invested time, resources and significant money in something that the organization no longer values. We need to reckon with the fact that while sunk-cost bias shouldn’t affect our decision making process, it very much does.

In these instances, when we no longer value our why, we have two fundamental choices: we need to find a different why, or we need to stop doing the work. Simply carrying on and hoping for the best is a recipe for abject failure. It is postponing, and magnifying, a much worse consequence that is waiting a little further down the road.

There are times, though, when our initial why simply doesn’t resonate. This is the situation several of the project managers that I described earlier are finding themselves in. This is the challenge that we encounter when our project relies upon retroactively rationalizing its importance, rather than starting as a response to a logical and well-defined need. What is essential here, sooner rather than later, is to find a compelling why that inspires and motivates. We need a purpose we can get behind. From there, there is a real need to revisit how we are doing the project, and how we are implementing it. But that will fall naturally from having clarity of vision.

The last—and possibly most challenging—circumstance is when we are dealing with a project where the why simply does not matter. This is the unfortunate reality of virtually every pet project and politically motivated initiative. The project frankly exists “because.” Because someone wanted it enough to make it happen, and it is our lot to deliver on those expectations. There is no larger purpose and compelling argument besides, “Because I said so.”

We still have choices here. They are more difficult choices, absolutely. But there are choices all the same. Perhaps the most difficult one is to recognize that the time may have come to find a different environment where “why?” is a more embraced and accepted question. There are implications and consequences to that decision. We are in essence deciding that this project is a hill that we are not prepared to die on, and so therefore we are choosing to find another hill. Hopefully one more to our liking.

The other choice is a pragmatic and practical one. If we accept that we are not prepared to leave for greener pastures and safer hills, then it is about finding our own purpose. It is asking of ourselves, “In the context of doing this project, what’s my why?” In other words, what is the thing that you want to get out of doing the project that would make it worthwhile to make happen? This is unquestionably selfish. And it might be really, really necessary. What is the outcome—in terms of experience, opportunity, learning or visibility—that will make doing this project worthwhile for you?

All too often, projects start in response to lies, not whys. That’s the challenge we have to confront where and when we can. Doing so takes work and effort. It is effort that can be rewarding, when our questions are listened to and our suggestions are accepted. When that’s not possible, we need to find a why for ourselves. Regardless of the outcome, the most important question to answer remains unchanged: “Why?”

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