I’ve been going through an interesting exercise of late. I’ve been working with a client that has a large number of corporate-wide initiatives that they are actively wanting to make happen. This represents a significant amount of change, and will have a massive and meaningful impact across the organization.
I’ve been helping them to go through the exercise of critically assessing the projects and how they fit together. That has involved challenging them on what they are trying to do, why they are trying to do it and what the expected impact on the organization will be.
It has been a discussion that has offered some fascinating insights. The first—and possibly most important—is that we don’t take a lot of time and effort to really explore why we are doing the things that we take on as projects. Very often this simply gets taken for granted. A project is assumed to be necessary, vital or expected, and from there it takes on a life of its own. When you stop and ask the question “Why are we doing this, anyway?” the initial responses can often be surprisingly vague. Sometimes it’s as simple as “because people expect it.” Or “it’s the right thing to do.” Or “everyone else is doing this kind of project right now.”
Push deeper, however, and some different insights begin to emerge. But it does take pushing. There is an interesting and persistent view that projects are defined by what they produce as deliverables, not why those changes are being sought in the first place. Almost every discussion that started with “Why are we doing this project?” was immediately answered with an inventory of outputs and actions. A repeated follow-up of “Why is that important?” was necessary to get to the underlying purpose and rationale.
So why is asking this actually important? Why should we care? And what difference does it make, if everyone accepts the fact that the project should happen anyway? It’s an interesting set of questions, that have important implications on not just whether or not we should be doing the project. They also impact what we do and how we deliver the project results.
One of the projects from this exercise provides a really good illustration of the challenge—and value—of getting true clarity on a project’s purpose. The project in question has already been underway for the better part of a year. It has implemented some functionality, but isn’t yet done. Moreover, there have been some challenges encountered in using what has been completed so far.
It took some work to clarify, but we were able to get to a really clear articulation of what the project was about and why it was important. We defined the essence of what the project should accomplish, and what success would look like if the project delivered on its underlying purpose. What was fascinating about that articulation, however, was the independent reactions of two separate team members. Hearing the definition, both essentially declared “But that’s not what we’ve been building!” The component activities and deliverables didn’t add up to the overall purpose that reflected why the project as being done in the first place.
The fact that this is true shouldn’t be surprising, but it is problematic. The very approach that helps us to manage project complexity is also the thing that gets in the way: decomposition. Decomposition is, of course, a fancy term for “breaking things down into manageable, bite-sized chunks.” It’s an essential problem solving technique that is the basis of how we plan and schedule project work. We define stages, articulate activities and outline deliverables. From there, we are able to assign responsibilities for component parts to groups and team members for completion. The trust—and the belief—is that the work that we have compartmentalized and broken down will synthesize back up to the full and complete outcome that we first envisioned.
That assumption is challenged from a couple of perspectives. For one, it’s rare that we have fully and completely visualized what the initiative will deliver and why that change is important to the organization. That means that we may lose—or never gain—insight into the real purpose and essence of the project. The other challenge is that it’s rare that the component pieces actually add back up to the whole. The challenge of integration—bringing the pieces together into a single, holistic solution—is a significant one. The more complex, messy and uncertain the project, the more difficult that this is to do.
Even where a larger purpose is articulated, it can be easy to lose sight of when we dive into the work of getting the project done. Projects are stressful and overwhelming things. Team members have a lot on their plates. This includes not just the project, but also their operational responsibilities, their career objectives and their personal lives. Projects are also often performance incubators, focussing heat and light on getting things done. Schedule pressure is a frequent and significant source of anxiety and stress.
Assigned an activity, therefore, our objective is often simply to get it done. It’s on my plate, it’s due on Friday and I want a weekend. What do I need to do to get it off my plate and out the door? Implicitly, the focus of project work has shifted. We are no longer keeping in mind the larger sense of the change the project represents. Instead we are focussed on the concrete, immediate and much smaller challenge of getting one specific task done and ticked off the list. That’s a very different mindset, and one with very real consequences. And it doesn’t take much insight to imagine when the results of that activity, and all of the dozens and hundreds of others, get approached with a similar mindset. Work gets done, but the larger question of whether it is the right work, fully and completely delivered the right way, remains unanswered.
That’s not to say that we aren’t going to still deconstruct and compartmentalize our project work. But we do need to look at our initiatives through a different lens first, both as we are planning and as we deliver them. What the most recent exercise has illustrated very clearly is the value of really getting to the heart of the question “Why are we doing this?” for any project. Asking this question—and doing so fearlessly—is a really important exercise.
The consequence of asking and answering the question might be that we don’t do the project, or that we fundamentally reframe and redefine what we are going to do. That can be an equally useful and valuable outcome. Getting to the essence of why a project is important also helps to identify all of the ancillary bits and pieces of expectation and requirement that popped up along the way that don’t really drive to that outcome. Stripped away, we can get streamlined and focussed about what we are really trying to do, and what is truly required in order to be successful.
An important thing to recognize here is that the questions that need to be asked aren’t mysterious and elusive. They are really simple and straightforward, and are intended to get to the essence of importance and impact. I’ve gotten really comfortable asking questions like: “And why is that important?” “What’s relevant about doing that?” “How does that help the organization?” “Why is that something that needs to be done?” They might seem basic, simplistic or obvious. My experience has demonstrated that they are anything but.
Powerful though simple questions are, we often resist asking them. That is an interesting thing to explore all on its own. Why would we avoid asking the easiest and most essential of all questions about initiatives that are theoretically important and strategic to our organizations? Interestingly enough, there is often a presumption that we should already know the answers. That they are so obvious that they don’t warrant revisiting. That they should simply be universally understood and accepted.
Yet the answers very often aren’t self evident, understood or accepted. And that gets to the true heart of the challenge. I think that we often don’t ask the easy and simple questions because we’re afraid of what the answers might tell us. We don’t want to find out that the scope might be irrelevant, the value might be a moving—or infinitesimally small—target. And we really, really don’t want to have to deal with the consequences of what might have to happen if the answers actually became clear and broadly visible.
Having been through similar exercises a very many times, now, it’s my considered opinion that we have no choice but to explore and to own up to the sometimes hard truths of why things are happening—and when things shouldn’t. I’ve gotten comfortable asking simple questions, and I’ve gotten quite used to continuing to probe ultimately arrive at what should already be well considered answers. Most importantly, I’ve come to recognize that the answers, once revealed, will often be anything but well understood.
Asking the simple but important questions is all perfectly acceptable, and needs to be accepted. Once we can face up to what our projects will and won’t do, then we can acknowledge the concrete work necessary to make them happen. Taking the time to ask the simple questions about why we are doing something helps us to get to the essence of our dreams. From there, we can actually undertake the work of making those dreams real.