Why You Must Ask Why

Lots of team projects fail. When that happens, people have a tendency to blame poor planning logistics, bad structure or lazy execution. But often the cause is simpler and more fundamental: The projects have no obvious purpose.

why_staircase“We have observed that in many corporate projects, team members cannot explain the point of what they are doing,” write Karen A. BrownNancy Lea Hyer and Richard Ettenson in MIT Sloan Management Review. The authors note that they often encounter “a project team in trouble—frustrated, laden with conflict and struggling to deliver results,” only to discover that “these teams have not even discussed, let alone agreed on, why they are pursuing the project.”

The remedy: Craft a “why statement.” As the authors put it, “the why statement serves as a useful tool that aligns the efforts of team members, leaders and other stakeholders.” By contrast, failure to have such a statement brings on a long host of calamities: “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.” (And that’s before the plague of locusts.)

Peter Drucker wouldn’t have been surprised by the authors’ conclusions. He found that organizations often neglect to ask what business they’re in, and that employees frequently set off on a task without understanding what their objectives are. As a result, many projects seem to exist for their own sake.

As Drucker wrote in Management: Tasks, Responsibilites, Practices, any proper work analysis “begins with defining the desired end product”—though even famous management experts have dropped the ball on this, including Frederick Winslow Taylor, who “always took the end product for granted.”

“To start out with the task rather than with the end product may result . . . in beautiful engineering of work that should not be done at all,” Drucker warned. Too many processes that we undertake are based on “little but untested assumptions, a lot of history, traditions and customs and geological strata of human errors.”

So think about the desired end result. As Drucker observed, “Anyone who starts out with an analysis of the final product, the work itself, will soon find himself asking the question ‘Why do we do this and why do we do that?’”

Why is asking “why” so hard—and what can managers do to encourage it?