Updated: Nov 15
I love a good “bumper sticker phrase” to sum up a Big Idea – something to you can just shoot across the table at someone in a conversation and sit back and watch the gears start turning inside their mind as they unpack your verbal slap-shot into the back of the net. When framing a project, I always ask the lead to explain to me the Why, the Where and the How. Sounds goofy and gimmicky, but that's the point.
Don’t get me wrong; I think formal processes, procedures, and templates in project planning and management are essential for successful planning and execution. As project managers and those who are part of project teams and efforts to get a project done, it can be easy to get caught up in one methodology or way of framing what we’re truly trying to get done. But we must be able to intuitively understand why we are working on a project, especially when getting involved in the execution phase. This is when deadlines seem perpetually tight, deliverables maybe aren’t quite tangible yet, and working in project teams seems like herding cats in a pond of molasses (let visual sink in for a minute).
So rather than think about scope, deliverables, schedule, WBS, change Management, etc., let's reframe this. The project is just trying to solve a problem. To understand a problem, we really need to know Why it exists, Where we are trying to get to a solution, and How we will make it a reality.
One skill I learned in the military was how to operate within “Commander’s Intent” when given a mission or task. Commander’s Intent was the very broad description of how leadership viewed successful execution of the task we were given and why we were doing it. Contrary to the “Ours is not to wonder Why” axiom, we always knew the Why. Understanding the Why in any operation gave us the greater context of how our planning and execution mattered. We could fall back to The Why to frame decisions made on the fly in dynamic environments.
The Why is the project charter, business case, or project sponsor’s strategic intent. The Why frames to an objective state of completion in any task within a project. The Why provides the clarity of purpose, the business benefit, or the risk of not completing the project. The Why is motivation for the project team to form the crucial conversations once work begins on quality and adherence to Scope, Schedule, and Budget.
I remember as a kid when my dad started putting his boots on to go outside to the garage to get a tool or to get firewood from the woodpile; I’d always ask “Hey where are you going?” His reply? “Crazy, wanna go?”. Ultimate Dad Joke.
So, years later, it occurred to me that the punchline speaks about how there isn’t a physical place on the ground. It's a bit more conceptual. The Where is Scope, but more importantly, it’s the milestones of the project where deliverables intersect with project work, resources, and quality. Once a project gets underway and the details of a killer WBS combined with the hum of an efficient change management process pile up in the backlog, it is easy to lose The Where in gantt charts as the pressure builds to deliver. Where are we taking this process, product, phase? The end-user.
How often can we reflect on projects in which someone already had a plan for how the project would get done right – before the first project team meeting? Then a vendor changes the date for delivery of parts. Oh, and BTW- Biz Dev was overly enthusiastic with your customer on that new cuba-majig-prototypy thing burning up time on your 5-axis CNC. The molasses is going to hit the fan (maybe a few cats too) because it's 60 man-hours behind that planned schedule. Now, we are racing to find resources, crash schedules, and expend money and time to get things moving of that 5-Axis CNC mill.
The How connects The Why and Where. It's tempting to start with The How. Just lean on the subject matter experts within a project team to sketch out how to get it done, right? But how are we going to do the work? How are we going to resource it? Without understanding the two distant points of the journey, navigating there might get sporty.
Yes, this blog is heavily tongue in cheek in my approach to an essential concept of communicating important project management principles. Regardless of your PM Professional Credential of choice, sworn by Project Methodology, or desire to burn it all down and forsake PM formalities, I’ll leave with you this thought: projects are just taking a crazy idea to make the world better somehow. Humans frame our most crucial project – life – with The Why, The Where, and The How daily. Why not with other projects as well?
Written by Brian Huyler, Project Manager/Analyst with Echo Consulting