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Business Objectives: We Must Understand Them

I spoke at the PMI-OC Personal Development Day Conference, talking about delivering value on our projects. The talk covered whether or not we measure the right things for projects, and about the importance of understanding and driving toward business objectives.

Now this being a PMI conference, there were all sorts of project managers attending. Most were in the IT industry, but some where in other industries, including construction. At the end of my talk, a project manager from the construction space asked the question:   “Why would you start a project if you do not understand the objectives?” The room laughed, and I welcomed him to the software world.

But in all seriousness, he asked a great question. Why is it that we start projects without understanding what the objectives are? We do it all the time: someone has a vague idea of what it is that they want, and we start a project. Even agile practices deal with the fact that we start projects before we understand the objectives. Scrum allows us to get started on the bit that we do know while we figure out the rest.

Industry leaders have been saying for decades that there has to be alignment between IT and the business. Much of this talk comes from the fact that IT doesn’t understand the business objectives. Sometimes, I also wonder if the business understands the objectives. At Seilevel, we have been advocating for years to elicit and document measurable business objectives; we even have a requirements model that focuses specifically on doing so (Business Objectives Model). We spend a lot of time in our training on this model, the importance of it, how to create it, and most importantly, how to continue to use it as the project progresses.

path-2And yet, we as an industry continually start projects before we understand what we are attempting to accomplish. We start on a path without knowing where we are going.  I’ve had many discussion with business analysts who tell me that they agree.  However they feel that it’s the project manager’s job to get that information. Many project managers will tell me that they get their information from the executives — they have their marching orders so they carry on. Many will tell me that they have objectives, but when you look at them, they are fuzzy and not measurable, and people can’t really explain what they mean.

And we wonder why so many projects fail.

I’m certainly not saying that getting this information is easy. In fact, it can be really difficult. There are a variety of reasons gaining this understanding can be challenging, from people just not knowing the information to those who don’t want to be measured (and perhaps held accountable). What bothers me the most is how so many of us don’t even try to get this information.

results come without excuses

I hear all kinds of excuses, it’s not my job, who am I to ask, I’m doing what I’m told to do, etc. I contend that it is our job. Our job is to ask, regardless of our title, what the objectives are for the project. We are obligated to understand those objectives, to ensure that others understand as well, and to work toward achieving those objectives.

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