Many projects fail because they are launched without a clearly articulated reason why they’re being pursued. Exploring the four dimensions of a compelling “why statement” can improve a project’s chances of success.

Can you and your team members articulate in a few short sentences the underlying reason that brought your project into existence? If you can’t, you’re not alone: We have observed that in many corporate projects, team members cannot explain the point of what they are doing — and as a result, their projects are likely to fail.

When a project fails to achieve its objective, observers frequently chalk it up to politics, poor planning and weak execution.1 Our experience as embedded observers with several hundred teams in more than 50 organizations has taught us that these factors often flow from an initial omission. Whenever we observe a project team in trouble — frustrated, laden with conflict and struggling to deliver results — we ask members to articulate what compelled their project into existence in the first place. To our continuing surprise, we often discover these teams have not even discussed, let alone agreed on, why they are pursuing the project.

Not being able to articulate why the project is being done puts it at risk of losing support and momentum and decreases its chances of success.2 The lack of a clear and compelling “why statement” leaves a project with a blurred focus, and the initiative with a weak internal and external project brand — that is, a poor or questionable reputation both within the organization and with its external stakeholders.

As we emphasized in a 2011 MIT Sloan Management Review article, “Why Every Project Needs a Brand (and How to Create One),” strong project branding can help build momentum for project engagement and support.3 In this article, we argue that the best way to begin building that project brand is with a well-articulated, problem-focused why statement. The why statement serves as a useful tool that aligns the efforts of team members, leaders and other stakeholders, and it helps maintain support through all five project branding phases, from pitch to payoff. (See “How Why Statements Influence the Five Stages of Project Branding.”)

How Why Statements Influence the Five Stages of Project Branding

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A project’s brand determines its reputation in the organization and influences the level of resource investment, voluntary effort and “buzz” surrounding the initiative. Solid project branding occurs in five interrelated stages, which we call the “Five Ps of Project Branding.” The why statement plays an important role at each stage.
Why Care About Why?

A global consumer electronics company spent millions on a cutting-edge automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) to handle the burgeoning finished-goods inventory in its North American distribution center. The project was completed on schedule and within budget, but with a serious downside:4 Although technically impressive, the new ASRS actually made the inventory problem worse, because it encouraged accumulation of even more inventory and hid it from view. Project leaders and team members had succumbed to a common trap in project management. They had lost sight of the original problem, settled on a misguided solution — and then pursued it with vigor.

The ASRS story provides a cautionary tale for project leaders: A project without a clear and compelling why can lead to wasted effort, missed project objectives, dissatisfied clients, poor business performance, demoralized team members and damage to the reputations of the team leader and the project. Unfortunately, the ASRS scenario is not unique. We know many cases just like it. Building on our more than 20 years of work with teams and organizations,5 we have identified several factors that distract or impede teams from understanding and describing the reasons behind their projects. We also recommend tactics to help make those reasons a unifying thread throughout the life of a project. (See “About the Research.”)

Why Why Matters

The why statement is a pivotal element in any project’s brand. Without a solid why, a team can become overwhelmed by conflict and confusion, and all-important supporters can and will direct their attention elsewhere. The pitch stage is the project advocate’s first chance to persuade decision makers and team members that the project has a legitimate, compelling rationale and, if completed successfully, will deliver value to the organization.6 A project pitched with a clear and compelling why will inspire people to feel the project is worth the time and effort. What’s more, a solid why helps the organization stay focused on the reasons for continuing to support the project. When the leader and team become immersed in the details of planning and delivery, the purpose of the project frequently fades from view.7 Project leaders — consumed with keeping the project on track — often fail to remind stakeholders and team members of the ultimate goal.8

Is Your Project Missing a Solid Why?

Over the years, we have repeatedly observed patterns and behaviors that cause project leaders, teams and sponsors to fail to identify a solid why before they launch their projects. In some instances, teams leap into action before they have explored all the possible motivations for a project.9 In others, a shared why never emerges because individuals or groups are unwilling to engage in discussions that might involve conflict or expose hidden agendas that other team members might not embrace.10 We have also worked with teams who see a solution only in terms of the fix they know and, from the outset, will pursue a familiar course of action, although it may not address the real problem. (See “Common Impediments to a Real Understanding of Why.”)

Common Impediments to a Real Understanding of Why

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A number of behaviors cause project leaders, teams and sponsors to fail to identify a solid why statement before they launch a project.

Developing Useful Why Statements

Given the tendency of groups to overlook, sidestep or forget the why of a project, project leaders, team members, stakeholders and the organization can derive real benefits from developing a clear and succinct description of the reasons driving the initiative. That might sound simple, but it’s not. Most of the time, a good why statement is the product of a lot of work and heated debate. A structured discussion can speed up the process. Our favorite method, based on Kepner and Tregoe’s classic work on managerial decisions,11 involves answering four key questions:

  1. Identity: What is the problem?
  2. Location: Where do we see it?
  3. Timing: When does it occur or when did it begin?
  4. Magnitude: How big is this problem in measurable terms?

The first question, identity, requires that the problem be clearly stated. Although seemingly obvious, this initial question is where many teams have difficulty. One tactic to help reveal the core problem is to ask in repeating fashion why the issue is important. This is a variation of a widely used process-improvement technique known as “Five Whys”12 but differs in its direction of questioning in that it focuses on the problem and not its causes. A project leader needs to ask these repeated whys early in meetings with the sponsor or customer, and always through the lens of the overall question, “Why is this important to customers and the organization?” These might also be thought of as “So what?” questions.

The following exchange, from an Argentinian company we will call Sport Diamante (not its real name), is derived from a real project situation and illustrates the value of the technique:

  • Project Sponsor: “We need a distribution center in São Paulo.”
  • Project Leader: “Why is this important?”
  • Project Sponsor: “Because customers in Brazil are complaining of long lead times, missed deliveries and late deliveries.”
  • Project Leader: “Why is this important?”
  • Project Sponsor: “Our sales are eroding in Brazil.”
  • Project Leader: “So what?”
  • Project Sponsor: “Brazil represents 40% of our business.”
  • Project Leader (tactfully): “We need to launch a project to solve the problem of customer dissatisfaction with long lead times, missed deliveries and late deliveries in Brazil. The solution we develop might or might not involve a new distribution center.”

Only through repeated and deeper probes has the project leader discerned the core business problem driving the project — one that explains to team members, stakeholders and the larger organization why they should care about the situation and, more importantly, why they should devote energy to doing something about it. There are no rules regarding the number of “Why is this important?” queries, except to persevere until the reason articulated is a critical business issue that can rally team members and other important constituents. Managers often are too quick to define a problem in terms of a familiar solution (for example, lack of a distribution center) and don’t realize until too late that they haven’t actually addressed the underlying gap between actual and desired performance. As the saying goes, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

A tip we offer teams whose members are struggling with problem definition is to focus on customers, who can be internal or external. We tell these teams: “If the customer would not care about the problem as you have defined it, you need to dig a little deeper.” For example, if a team defines a problem as “a serious bottleneck in step two of the process,” we push members to describe why a bottleneck in step two is important to customers. What customers really care about is not the bottleneck per se but either that the company cannot meet the volume of customer demand or that the process frustrates customers because it takes too long. Both of these customer-oriented whys offer team members the perspective to keep open minds about causes (of which the bottleneck might be one) and, more importantly, what a solution might look like.

Location

Location is the second dimension of an effective why statement and answers the question, “Where do we see the problem?” Where can refer to a physical location (for example, a country, city or facility), a market segment, a product category, a machine or a process step. Multiple elements typically make up the location dimension. For the Sport Diamante scenario described above, the problem location involves both a geographic element (Brazil) and a product element (all company offerings). Specifying the elements of location places practical boundaries on the problem to be addressed. For this example, the why driving the project and the solution that eventually evolves need not address sales challenges in Argentina or other South American markets — only Brazil — and must be applicable to all product lines.

Timing

The third dimension, timing, involves specifying when the problem occurs, when it began and how long it is likely to persist if no action is taken. Knowing when the problem began (for instance, delivery problems were first reported six months ago) and when the problem occurs (for example, delivery problems have persisted continuously but peak near the end of each month) can provide guidance regarding where to look for a cause. (For example, what else changed six months ago that might have a bearing on delivery performance in Brazil?) Answering whether the problem is likely to persist if no action is taken ensures that scarce resources are invested in addressing real, not phantom or transient, business challenges.

Magnitude

Magnitude is the fourth dimension and speaks to the significance and scale of the issue: How big is the problem in measurable terms? Are customers in Brazil receiving products a day late, two days late, two weeks late or not at all? An assessment of the problem’s magnitude also involves identifying the potential measurable consequences of this problem for the organization. Answers to questions regarding magnitude are critical to establishing project urgency and the scale and resource requirements of an appropriate response. Knowing, for example, that Brazilian sales constitute 40% of annual revenues, 30% of Brazilian customers have complained and 10% have defected to competitors signals that this problem is critical to the organization.

 

The four dimensions of a why statement provide a structured description of the business gap that drives the project. (See “The Four Dimensions of an Effective Why Statement.”) A why statement should be developed early in the gestation of a project — before significant resources are misdirected toward a poorly defined issue that is not the real problem.

The Four Dimensions of an Effective Why Statement

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Producing a good why statement often requires both a lot of work and heated debate. A structured discussion focusing on four key dimensions — identity, location, timing and measurability — can speed up the process.

The key benefit of the four-element why statement is that it specifies the parameters of the gap in a way that can help the team avoid some common biases and errors. For example, the why statement for the Sport Diamante scenario might be summarized as: Brazil constituted 40% of our business six months ago, but its share is falling fast. Nearly one-third of our Brazilian customers have complained of long lead times, missed deliveries and late deliveries. Ten percent have even dropped us as a vendor.

This simple structure forms the basis for a well-organized pitch for the project that is easily grasped by stakeholders. (See “Test the Strength of Your Why Statement.”) In this case, the problem is isolated to a specific location (Brazil) and manifested itself in the last two quarters. This clarity and precision enable everyone to explore multiple causal factors (processes, people, technology, externalities), set outcome-oriented goals (such as shorter and more predictable delivery times) and imagine a full range of possible solutions for closing the gap (for example, improved logistics, a streamlined ordering process, a different transportation company, new technology or employee training).

Test the Strength of Your Why Statement

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Use this checklist to determine if you have organized your project activities to generate and remain focused on a strong why statement. The more questions you answer in the affirmative, the closer you are to having the key ingredients of a successful and focused project.

Observe that the Sport Diamante why statement is fact-based and does not suggest a solution, speculate about causes or attempt to cast blame on individuals. We frequently see these types of biases in why statements, even those coming from experienced project teams. In the case of Sport Diamante, these misdirects might have played out as follows:

  1. “The problem is we need a new distribution center.” (This illustrates two of the biases described in “Common Impediments to a Real Understanding of Why”: the action bias and the familiar solution.)
  2. “Ed is the problem — he should not have committed to the one-week turnaround time on orders for Brazil.” (This is an example of a preconceived, myopic notion about causality — and the attributional tendency to blame individuals rather than considering broader contextual factors.)
  3. “The problem is we do not fully grasp the nuances of effective product distribution in Brazil.” (This rather vague observation hints at a possible cause, but it is not a why statement.)

When the leader and team become immersed in the details of planning and delivery, the purpose of the project frequently fades from view. Project leaders — consumed with keeping the project on track — often fail to remind stakeholders and team members of the ultimate goal.

To be sure, not all project why statements begin with problems — some are spawned by opportunities (for example, new business ventures, new market entries). But in the majority of cases, projects are designed to close gaps and address business problems — quality expert J.M. Juran even defined a project as “a problem scheduled for solution.” (In fact, Juran goes so far as to state that without a problem, we really do not have a project.13) Perhaps it is simply a matter of how we phrase it — as a gap to be addressed or a vision to be fulfilled. Building on decision-making research as well as our own field-based observations, we advise teams to aim for problem-oriented why statements, not opportunity statements. Psychologists have found that decision makers tend to be more compelled by the potential loss — the problem (for example, “If we don’t do X, our competitors will steal 75% of the growing Asian market”) — than by the upside opportunity (for example, “If we do X, we can gain 75% of the Asian market”).14 The difference seems subtle, but the persuasive power of the first statement will be far greater.

Making It Happen — Putting Why Statements to Work

A team whose members take the time to develop a solid why statement and understand the importance of keeping it in clear view throughout the project’s life cycle will avoid common errors that can derail the project. Communication must consistently reinforce the project’s initial brand by including messages not only about the initiative’s progress and outcomes but also about its raison d’être. This unifying thread can be particularly important during the often-protracted project delivery phase when, as research has shown, engagement from customers and support from top-level managers can decline.15

References

1. For a summary of recent studies of project failure, see “Why Projects Fail — Facts and Figures,” accessed November 24, 2012, http://calleam.com. For examples of other explorations of research on the causes of project failure, see B.J. Sauser, R.R. Reilly and A.J. Shenhar, “Why Do Projects Fail? How Contingency Theory Can Provide New Insights — A Comparative Analysis of Mars Climate Orbiter Loss,” International Journal of Project Management 27, no. 7 (October 2009): 665-679; P.E.D. Love, D.J. Edwards and Z. Irani, “Forensic Project Management: An Exploratory Examination of the Causal Behavior of Design-Induced Rework,” IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management 55, no. 2 (May 2008): 234-247; and G. Pan, S.L. Pan and M. Newman, “Information Systems Project Post-Mortems: Insights From an Attribution Perspective,” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 58, no. 14 (December 2007): 2255-2268. Earlier references include J.K. Pinto and J.G. Covin, “Critical Factors in Project Implementation: A Comparison of Construction and R&D Projects,” Technovation 9, no. 1 (May 1989): 49-62; and J.K. Pinto and D.P. Slevin, “Critical Factors in Successful Project Implementation,” IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management EM-34, no. 1 (February 1987): 22-27.

2. K.A. Brown, R. Ettenson and N.L. Hyer, “Why Every Project Needs a Brand (and How to Create One),” MIT Sloan Management Review, 52, no. 4 (summer 2011): 61-68.

3. Project branding phases run in parallel with commonly recognized project phases: selection, initiation, planning, delivery and closure. Various authors use different terms to describe the phases in the project life cycle, but selection, initiation, planning, delivery and closure are a sensible, practical description and not inconsistent with nomenclature offered by the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Body of Knowledge. See “A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide)” (Newtown Square, Pennsylvania: Project Management Institute, Inc., 2013).

4. For a useful discussion about how to avoid the trap of focusing on time and cost while ignoring performance, see N.F. Matta and R.N. Ashkenas, “Why Good Projects Fail Anyway,” Harvard Business Review 81, no. 9 (September 2003): 109-114.

5. Some readers might raise the point that an absence of why statements does not rise to the surface in survey research on causes of project failure. One explanation is that survey findings are limited by self-serving biases. Specifically, respondents are inclined to identify causal factors they can attribute to others. A project leader may be reluctant to admit not knowing why his or her project was initiated. To avoid this bias, we have opted for a case-based observational approach to discover insights into project why statements. However, a common finding of survey research — that unclear goals lead to project failure — offers an important connection to our research. Goals can represent aspirations to close gaps and thus, if stated accurately, will connect to a project’s underlying why.

6. Brown et al., “Why Every Project,” MIT Sloan Management Review 52.

7. J.K. Pinto, “Project Management: Achieving Competitive Advantage” (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2010), 10-13. In Chapter 1 (p. 12), Pinto cites a paper by V. Sohmen, “Project Termination: Why the Delay?” which was presented at the PMI Research Conference, July 2002, in Seattle, Washington, and displays a figure showing the intensity levels for client interest, client stake, resources, expenditures and uncertainty. The challenge for project branding is that just when expenditures are highest, during project execution, client (and by extension, sponsor) interest is on the wane.

8. Although it is outside the scope of this paper, we acknowledge the work of Simon Sinek, who stresses the importance of why statements as the drivers for all aspects of the work of organizations, not just projects. He argues that the lack of a mission-driven why puts an organization at risk for survival. See S. Sinek, “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” (New York: Penguin, 2009).

9. Hammond et al. observe that failure to clearly define a problem is evidence of laziness on the part of decision makers, who stop with the obvious rather than digging deeper; the result often sets them on the wrong course of action. See J.S. Hammond, R.L. Keeney and H. Raiffa, “Smart Choices: A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions” (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 1999). We also can view the difference between seeking the problem and jumping to solutions in what Garvin and Roberto describe as advocacy versus inquiry. Advocacy involves focusing too soon on a solution, and inquiry involves asking probing questions about the solution. See D.A. Garvin and M.A. Roberto, “What You Don’t Know About Making Decisions,” Harvard Business Review 79, no. 8 (September 2001): 108-116.

10. See, for example, H.S. Ng, F. Peña-Mora and T. Tamaki, “Dynamic Conflict Management in Large-Scale Design and Construction Projects,” Journal of Management in Engineering 23, no. 2 (April 2007): 52-66; and H.S. Desivilya and D. Eizen, “Conflict Management in Work Teams: The Role of Social Self-Efficacy and Group Identification,” International Journal of Conflict Management 16, no. 2 (2005): 183-208.

11. C.H. Kepner and B.B. Tregoe, “The New Rational Manager” (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton Research Press, 1981).

12. J.Y. Shook, “Bringing the Toyota Production System to the United States: A Personal Perspective” in “Becoming Lean: Inside Stories of U.S. Manufacturers,” ed. J.K. Liker (Portland, Oregon: Productivity Press, 1997), 41-70.

13. See J.M. Juran, “Juran on Leadership for Quality: An Executive Handbook” (New York: Free Press, 1989).

14. D. Kahneman and A. Tversky, “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk,” Econometrica 47, no. 2 (March 1979): 263-291.

15. Pinto, “Project Management.”

i. D. Zak, “Gung-ho but Untrained, Volunteers Hit a Wall in Helping Mitigate Oil Spill,” Washington Post, June 29, 2010.

ii. See J. Flesher and N. Schwartz, “Rescuing Oiled Birds: Poignant, but Is It Futile?” June 10, 2010, Associated Press, accessed at http://usnews.com.

iii. P. Linnman, “The Exploding Whale and Other Remarkable Stories From the Evening News” (Portland, Oregon: WestWinds Press, 2003).

iv. For more on this topic, see Kahneman and Tversky, “Prospect Theory,” Econometrica 47.

v. P.G. Willis, K.A. Brown and G.E. Prussia, “Does Employee Safety Influence Customer Satisfaction? Evidence From the Electric Utility Industry,” Journal of Safety Research 43, no. 5-6 (December 2012): 389-396.

vi. For more on the traps of blaming cycles in process improvement, see N.R. Repenning and J.D. Sterman, “Capability Traps and Self-Confirming Attribution Errors in the Dynamics of Process Improvement,” Administrative Science Quarterly 47, no. 2 (June 2002): 265-295.

vii. As Bass observes, this is an example of defining a problem in terms of its symptoms, and the problem is likely to reappear with new symptoms. See B.M. Bass, “Organizational Decision Making” (Homewood, Illinois: Richard D. Irwin, Inc., 1983). It also represents an example of self-serving bias — by blaming employees, managers take themselves out of the causal equation.

viii. K.A. Brown, “Explaining Group Poor Performance: An Attributional Analysis,” Academy of Management Review 9, no. 1 (January1984): 54-63.

ix. CH2M Hill, “Project Delivery: A System and Process for Benchmark Performance” (Denver, Colorado: CH2M Hill, 1996). Beyond case-based evidence, empirical research has shown that teams whose members bring conflict to the surface early in a project tend to be more successful than those who allow conflicts to simmer. For example, see K.A. Brown, T.D. Klastorin and J.L. Valluzzi, “Project Performance and the Liability of Group Harmony,” IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management. 37, no. 2 (May 1990): 117-125.

x. This may also be viewed as a self-serving bias that gets in the way of problem definition. See D.T. Miller and M. Ross, “Self-Serving Biases in the Attribution of Causality: Fact or Fiction?” Psychological Bulletin 82, no. 2 (March 1975): 213-225.