Project Planning Should Start with the 5W Questions Before Getting to the How?

Ashley Marron – 24th January 2019

As I have watched my two daughters develop over the past 21 years I am stuck by how their approach to gaining knowledge has matured. However, they have still retained at its core the perspective of a small child and the repetitive but Why? as a constant theme to understand a topic. With all of the tools, techniques and processes available to project teams, we sometimes lose sight of the simpler perspective. No matter the size of your project when you are determining the requirements for a new or enhanced solution, one way to ensure that you are not over-complicating things is to assess your approach from the perspective of a small child.

On project planning, understanding & communicating the five W’s can provide context and perspective for the low-level details found within the individual project plans.

1. What – is about answering the “What do we want to do?” question. It’s amazing how many projects will consume significant resources, and rework as a result, without having a simple answer. Without clear agreement upfront there are many occasions where I have seen projects simply fail to deliver what the management believe they had clearly asked for.

2. Why (and why, why, why and why?) – if there’s one thing we lose as we grow up, it’s the admirable persistence that a small child demonstrates when trying to learn about something new. We might ask the “Why are we doing this project?” question once or twice, but how often do we probe really deep to understand the fundamental key benefits and desires? We should adopt the traditional performance improvement technique which recommends asking “Why?” five times to ensure that we are not presenting a surface-level driver as the main reason for investing in a project.

3. Who – Although the What might not have been sufficiently detailed to identify all of the skills or competencies required, there should be some idea of the critical roles that are required to deliver the What.

4. When – When is the latest that the What must be delivered to enable the organisation to achieve the Why?

5. Where – Where is the optimal location for the work to be performed and where will the What be used?

Personally, I find mind mapping the 5Ws is an excellent approach for a new team to quickly kick-start projects, gather requirements and gain buy-in with a visual planning tool that encourages interaction and brings clarity to project planning. The project manager’s focus can then shift to the question that too often gets all the attention before there’s a good understanding of the five W’s: How? This ensures that we don’t spend too much time on approach, methodologies and practices, without having first understood the project’s essence.

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