The Properties of "Why"

Creating Meaningful Projects

"That's just the way it is." Does that sound familiar? It's the answer we often get when asking the reason behind the way things are done on a project. How much better it would be if everyone on a project knew the "whys"-the purpose of the project, the reason behind the delivery schedule, the significance of the project to the organization, etc. This article describes the benefits of an environment in which people know why, and it explains how to create and maintain that environment.

Now, I want to know why. When I know why-and that why is compelling-I am more motivated and better able to apply what I know. When the people around me know why, I sense that they, too, are more effective. And when we share an understanding of a compelling why, we are much more effective together, as we have a basis for dialog and decision making. The work we are doing is meaningful to each of us.

When I was younger and less experienced, I worked on faith that the people for whom I worked knew why or that the idea was so noble that why would become obvious to everyone. I remember, perhaps fifteen years ago, working diligently to figure out how to apply an expert system somewhere, somehow, in our large corporation. I fought the good fight-A.I., which included expert systems, was to revolutionize how people worked with computers. I had been inspired by sales people and by my own management. "Go forth with this new magic technology," they said, "and save those poor corporate souls from themselves. They, too, will see the potential we see. They will willingly throw down the chains of how they work now and will embrace your solutions. They will be like so much putty in your hands!"

I was inspired and I did go forth. Apparently the chains of how they worked were stronger than the liberating potential they saw from my expert systems. Even though I had a deep understanding of what they did, I did not understand why they did it. I had an elegant, really cool solution. But I did not understand their problems or speak their language. I tried speaking louder by showing them more diagrams about how the magic happened. I wanted them to see the wonder of it all; if they only could see how wonderful it was, they would understand.

I failed, and I thought it was because I was unable to make them understand. Now that I am older, I realize that I failed because there was no way I could make them understand. My message was meaningless to them. I was a voice disconnected from their business realities. I couldn't understand what significance my magic could have had for them, much less discuss this with them.

Now, before I will commit to work on a project, I want to know why the work of that project is significant to the people who will be accepting that work. I want to be inspired when I understand how my new role will help create a significant result-greater than anything I could have hoped to do alone. When I find a meaningful environment surrounding me, I am free to create a meaning for myself, confident in the knowledge that I will be effectively working toward that larger significant result.

The Elements of a Meaningful Environment
If you sponsor, create, or lead projects, make them meaningful for the people who will be working on them. Ensure these four key components have specific definitions:

  • project's purpose: why the project exists
  • significance of that purpose: why the successful outcome to this project is important to the organization
  • fit of that project's work into the organization: how it connects with the surrounding technical and organizational context
  • framework for how the work of the project will be done: a first cut at the project's organization and its deliverables' conceptual design

Keep these definitions in a Project Charter (sometimes called a Statement of Work or something similar). The Project Charter will have other sections and, at a minimum, it must address these

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