At the outset of a project, natural momentum will tend to move engineering and development teams very quickly from “What” (problem and requirements) to “How” (methods and solution details). This article will illustrate the value of resisting that natural momentum to address “Why” - and paradoxically accelerate success.
Properly understood and implemented, “Why” should govern “How.” “Why” creates a whole-project theme and provides a consistent guide for decision-making at every level. During the requirements stage, “Why” also helps clarify “What,” becoming the keystone that holds up the 4-way intersecting arches of client expectations, user needs, design clarity, and well-regarded solution.
Use “Why” to Refine Requirements
Knowing your “Why” originates from working with your client to understand their fundamental needs and motivations for the project, progressively refining “Why” to clarify, define, expand, and perhaps even eliminate, project requirements. What is the purpose or intent behind each requirement? Where, and from whom, does it come? End users (which ones)? The client's company? Your company? How does each requirement work with all the others to achieve the desired solution?
If you rush too quickly from “What” to “How,” you risk not noticing when requirements clash, or fail to support the primary objective, until later – after you've already sunk time and resources into developing for them. Conversely, with appropriate focus on “Why”, requirements can be prioritized easily by benefit-to-cost ratio.
Where Should “Why” Come From?
Sources for “Why” can vary. You should keep expanding your source list until you've heard from everyone, whenever possible.
For example, here's a quick look at who “everyone” might include for an implantable medical device development project:
- your client:
- client's technical staff assigned to project
- client's management team assigned to project
- client's PR team that will represent project to buyers
- surgeons and hospital support staff who will implant the device
- physicians and healthcare professionals who will assist the patient and support the device's functions after implant
- patients who will both (A) benefit from using the device, and (B) who will also be impacted by its safety, efficacy, reliability (both real and perceived), relative convenience, ease-of-use, and effect on self-image and social image
- patients, family members, caregivers, and others who may assist with certain device functions (such as maintenance, reporting, or manual operations)
- industry participants and regulators:
- hospitals and purchasing groups
- the FDA (or its equivalent)
- insurance payors
- Medicare or other national program administrations and policymakers
- your company:
- your development team
- your management chain
- your supply and production chain
- other teams and departments who may be impacted or enabled by your project
While personal meetings and interviews are ideal, in some cases, you may have to rely heavily on research to supply needed input. Understanding the motives and desires of each source will help guide you to your project's “Why.”
Once you have all that input, your next step is to establish a hierarchy, organize, identify conflicts, and prioritize. If the client asks for a device of smallest size (A), but surgeons request a device no smaller than (B) because of implantation handling, whose desire gets priority? After recognizing this conflict, your understanding of each “Why” may help identify a compromise or alternate solution. With numerous requirements of varying value, assigning each a benefit-to-cost ratio allows you to create a simple and helpful Pareto chart for decision making and communication.
As you evaluate your chart, assume the mindset of a Minimalist – or rather, of an Essentialist. Seek out the truly elegant solution. Neither overly robust, nor too lean, an elegant solution based on “Why” captures all of the most important priorities from the most important sources – those who are driving the project and those who will determine its success – and excludes everything else as superfluous. The Essentialist's design keeps variables down, which reduces externalities, vulnerabilities, and potential impacts from the unforeseen.
Always involve your client in your efforts to define “Why.” Interviewing the client at the outset and coming back to them with your proposed solution at the end is the absolute minimum; you'll achieve greater clarity, keener insight, and faster buy-in if you work to define “Why” as partners.
Project Managers: 5 Tips for Finding “Why”
- Don't ignorantly accept client desires without follow-up. Ask careful questions to guide conversations toward discovering the “Why” that lies behind each requirement.
- If you know “What” (target problem, preliminary requirements) and “Who” (solution beneficiaries), you can often use that information to reverse-engineer “Why,” and then check it for correctness.
- Inventiveness may overshoot “Why” and need to be reeled back in. Be ready to remind your team of project vision and recast as necessary, saving those out-of-scope ideas for appropriate projects.
- Know “Why” so thoroughly that you're able to keep your team on track when the unexpected happens. Project “crises” are easier to handle when everyone understands the impact on “Why”.
- Maintain a posture of user-oriented innovation at all times. Who will want the new product, and why? Who will want to prescribe/recommend the new product, and why? Who will prefer to reimburse the new product, and why? Keep an eye on them, and you'll find your “Why” never strays out of sight.
“Why” Accelerates Success
Conceding to internal and external pressure to immediately begin developing (when NOT for the purpose of knowing your “Why”) is like frantically pedaling your bike in first gear. Starting with “Why” shifts you sequentially into higher gear, so your development energy is more effective, resulting in:
- clear and succinct themes for project management and focus
- right-the-first-time designs
- reduced overall work and cost (reducing “What” and “How”)
- reduced errors, especially those found during design validation
- earlier product deployment to further refine “Why”
In my three-decades-plus career engineering implantable medical devices, I have seen “Why”-oriented project management and “Why”-oriented solution designs succeed time after time. “Why” guides your decisions, which accelerates development speed and oils management apparatus. “Why” provides a clear rubric for client-contractor partnerships and brings disparate opinions and needs together under a single organization system, which reduces delays, miscommunications, and potential conflicts. Finally, an adamant and holistic focus on “Why” supports prognosis of a positive reception following product rollout.
Tempting as it is to plunge right into “How,” I strongly urge first taking appropriate time to understand “Why”. The payoff for everyone is tremendous.