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Agile/Scrum, Project Management

Project Managers: stop obsessing about “what?” and keep your eye on “why?”

Coffee and cakeThere have been a few posts recently on LinkedIn with “clever” graphics showing the role of Project Management when applied to day-to-day activities. A couple of examples were how to make a cup of coffee and how to bake a cake (if I recall correctly).

They attempt to show how project management activities such as defining requirements, managing stakeholders, scheduling and resource planning can be interpreted in a routine activity such as making a cup of coffee.

It was all quite good, except for one fundamental flaw which, I think, highlights a major pitfall some Project Managers fall into. None of the “Objectives” were actually Objectives!

Neither “To produce a cup of hot coffee” or “To bake a cake” are objectives; they describe activities to create deliverables (stuff!). They address the “how?” and the “what?” questions but fail to answer “why?”. Objectives should describe what a project is trying to achieve, not what it is required to produce.

The way to answer “why?” is to understand who wants the deliverables and what their motivations are. You need to understand what benefit the user is looking for. As someone wanting a cup of coffee, I might need it to help keep me awake, or to be sociable with friends in a café, or to feed my caffeine addiction. The benefit I’m looking for should lead the Project Manager to a clear definition of requirements and then a plan to create a deliverable that will satisfy me. If the PM knows my budget and timescale, these too will influence the definition of the deliverable and the plan.

I think the agile community have got the right idea with their concept of User Stories. The format: “As a [role], I want to [what] so that [reason]”. For example, as a Starbucks Customer, I want to have a caffeine fix, so that I can stay awake through the next 2-hour meeting. Expressed this way, there are several ways in which this could be achieved and they don’t necessarily all require a “cup of coffee” as the deliverable. However, if as the customer, I start expressing my requirements in terms of a specification, it limits the choices available to the Project Manager. As soon as I say, “I want a Grande Black Americano”, the PM has very little scope to do anything other than creating that deliverable.

I suspect that’s why PMs end up with “objectives” that do little more than describe the deliverables their project will have to create. PMs need to stop obsessing about “what” their project is going to produce and even “how” they will do it. Project objectives should be about what needs to be achieved (improved, reduced, increased) and answer the “why?” question.

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