How To Develop a Useful “Why” Statement

Asking why you’re embarking on a project before you begin raises the project’s chance of success. Here’s how to do it.

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“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.”

So write Karen A. Brown, Nancy Lea Hyer and Richard Ettenson in the Fall 2013 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review, in “The Question Every Project Team Should Answer.” “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.”

But 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 authors say that their favorite way to have that debate is based on C.H. Kepner and B.B. Tregoe’s 1981 work “The New Rational Manager.” It involves answering these four key questions:

What is the problem?

This identifies the problem in a clear manner.

Where do we see it?

This locates the problem — and locates where it isn’t a problem.

When does it occur or when did it begin?

This helps identify what else might have been happening as the problem developed. As the authors note, “Through our empirical observations, we have learned that project team members and leaders are fairly good at articulating some of the obvious factors that lead to less-than-successful project performance but often overlook more subtle root causes.”

How big is this problem in measurable terms?

This allows everyone to put the problem in perspective and figure out how to prioritize it.


Sometimes teams get stuck at the very first question.

“A tip we offer teams whose members are struggling with problem definition is to focus on customers, who can be internal or external,” write Brown, Hyer and Ettenson. “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.”

Orienting the why around customer needs nudges team members to keep open minds about the causes and the potential solutions to the problem.


Brown and Ettenson are professors at Thunderbird School of Global Management, and Hyer is an associate professor at Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University. Brown and Hyer are coauthors of the book Managing Projects: A Team-Based Approach (McGraw-Hill, 2010).

For more on why really understanding why is such a challenge and how why statements influence the five stages of project branding, read the full article.


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