Why you need to write down the outcomes behind your projects

Let’s face it, writing down the desired outcome or why a pursuit is worthwhile can seem unnecessary — especially when it’s your project. At the start the reasons for pursuing a project are clear. You understand why the work is important and have a picture of the steps needed to get there. There is a temptation to just dive in and get on with it.

But as the months roll on, new team members get involved, stakeholders want to change the scope and unforeseen obstacles hinder your progress. It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. A written statement about why your project is worthwhile helps address these issues. It doesn’t have to be long or eloquently worded — a few sentences or bullet points are usually enough.

Wandering in the fog

Photo credit: Chapendra via photopin cc

I discovered the value of this approach by accident a few years ago as we moved a critical application to a cloud-based delivery model. We had to invent new processes along the way since everything that went before made assumptions that just didn’t fit this situation. Satisfying privacy requirements took months longer than expected as the legal teams worked through the issues.

I’d originally made notes about the “why” for this project as part of the message to stakeholders about the change. This summary helped the team focus on the ultimate outcome when we became discouraged by delays and obstacles. I don’t do this for every project, but it’s helpful for longer-term ventures, those where the steps to the final outcome are not clear, and projects I expect to find challenging.

Writing down the purpose behind the work helps to:

  1. Provide a reference point in times of difficulty. When taking on a new project it is impossible to anticipate all the challenges that could surface along the way. This discovery process keeps things interesting, but means you have to deal with uncertainty and solve problems as you go. When progress is frustrated in a quagmire of unanticipated complexity, revisiting the purpose can offer the clarity and confidence you need. It helps you see past the immediate problems and reconnect with the larger outcome you’re pursuing.

    The middle of every successful project looks like a disaster
    — Rosabeth Moss Kanter

  2. Build a common understanding between stakeholders. New people get involved throughout the life of a project as their skills are needed. A written purpose statement means stakeholders will hear a consistent message no matter when they become involved.
  3. Simplify decisions about potential changes. Scope changes are inevitable in any project of even modest size. Ask yourself, “Will making this change move us closer to the objective?” An external reference point can make it easier to say no to good ideas that don’t further the core purpose.
  4. See alternative approaches to achieve the outcome. Sometimes we uncover better ways to reach an outcome along the way. Abandoning the original goal might be the best course of action if you discover a superior way to achieve the same result. The “why” remains constant, but how you get there can change.

Writing down why you’re doing a project is easy to skip. But it can serve as a motivator in times of difficulty, help build a shared understanding between your team, simplify decision-making when considering scope changes and help you to see better ways to reach the outcome.

Question: How clear are you about why your current projects matter? Have you written this down? Leave a comment here.

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