YB4WHAT (Why Before What)

by Karen A. Brown and Nancy Lea Hyer

Some project managers mistakenly ask the question “what” (as in “What do you want us to do, boss?” without asking “why” (as in “What’s the underlying driver for this project?” or “What is the core problem we’re trying to solve?”). In the absence of information about what led to the need for a project, several unfortunate outcomes are likely to emerge:

• Low team motivation because of unclear goals.
• Feelings of discouragement because efforts lead nowhere.
• Conflict over tasks and roles.
• Lost credibility with stakeholders in the organization.
• A project that, ultimately, wastes everyone’s time.

The Coat Hook Story

According to legend, engineers at an aerospace company were told to design a coat hook where pilots could hang their coats in the cockpit during flights. The engineers paid careful attention to style, placement, number, weight, and function of the hooks. After several days of design effort, one of the engineers asked a pilot-advisor “Why do you need the coat hook?” The pilot’s reply? “Because it gets so darned hot in the cockpit.” Bottom line – the cockpit did not have adequate temperature control! Although coat hooks might have some use, a more important sub-project within cockpit design initiative would involve improvements in the air conditioning system that fed the cockpit. YB4WHAT.

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Some new project managers feel hesitant to ask the “why” question out of fear it will send a signal of insubordination or suggest lack of interest in the project. The opposite is true: if you ask “why” it will demonstrate that you are more than just some flunky. You are a leader who knows the importance of asking the right questions. If you are still in the process of proving yourself and establishing credibility with the sponsor, you’ll need to be tactful. Don’t ask: “Good grief, why on earth are we doing this, anyway?” That sets up the sponsor to be defensive and is unlikely to produce a useful answer to your question. Instead, you might say something like this: “Thanks for this opportunity. I feel honored to be part of this project. Before we start, can you answer a few questions so I can be sure my team and I are headed in the right direction? We can do a better job if we have a full understanding of the underlying problems that led to the need for this project. Your answer will assist us in fulfilling your expectations.” The sponsor, in this case, is likely to give you an answer you can use.

While you are in the meeting, there are a few other questions you should ask, too. Examples include:
• “How will we measure success?” (In other words, what’s the goal?)
• “Is there more than one way we can achieve the goal?”
• “Are you aware of any significant risks we should keep in mind?”
• “What resources will be available to me and my team?”
• “Who is the ultimate customer?”

The list above is just a sample, but it will set you on the right path. In many ways, it reflects the content often associated with project charters. But, don’t sit around waiting for a fairy godmother to issue a charter. Ask the right questions, and begin with “why.”