If you’re travelling to an unfamiliar location, you wouldn’t leave home without a big red circle around you destination on either a physical or virtual map. But according to a new article in MIT Sloan Management Review, when it comes to big work projects, it’s remarkable how many teams start out without a clear idea of their final endpoint in mind.

"Whenever we observe a project team in trouble-- frustrated, laden with conflict and struggling to deliver results-- we ask members to articulate what compelled their project into existence in the first place. To our continuing surprise, we often discover these teams have not even discussed, let alone agreed on, why they are pursuing the project," write authors Karen A. Brown, Nancy Lea Hyer and Richard Ettenson.

Why would teams do something so seemingly silly?

The authors offer several explanations, all of which will no doubt sound familiar to office veterans, including leaping into a project without sufficient preliminary discussion of the motivations for tackling it, an attempt to paper over conflicts or fundamental differences by limiting discussion, or a simple failure to think past the most obvious approach to the problem. But whatever the cause, the authors prescribe the same cure: a well-thought out why statement.

How can teams develop one? They advocate a four-step approach that tackles each of the following questions:  

What Is the Problem?

The authors suggest a series of 'why' questions to get at the true root of the problem, i.e. the issue isn’t 'we need a new distribution center' but rather 'we’re losing customers in region X because of long lead times.' "A tip we offer teams whose members are struggling with problem definition is to focus on customers, who can be internal or external," write the authors. "For example, if a team defines a problem as 'a serious bottleneck in step two of the process,' we push members to describe why a bottleneck in step two is important to customers."

Where Do We See It?

"Where can refer to a physical location (for example, a country, city or facility), a market segment, a product category, a machine or a process step," write the authors.

When Does It Occur or When Did It Begin?

"Knowing when the problem began (for instance, delivery problems were first reported six months ago) and when the problem occurs (for example, delivery problems have persisted continuously but peak near the end of each month) can provide guidance regarding where to look for a cause," they note.

How Big Is This Problem in Measurable Terms?

Throwing vast resources at a problem only makes sense is the problem is genuinely large, so make sure you aren’t making a mountain out of a molehill before you begin. "An assessment of the problem’s magnitude also involves identifying the potential measurable consequences of this problem for the organization. Answers to questions regarding magnitude are critical to establishing project urgency and the scale and resource requirements of an appropriate response," the authors point out.

If all this sounds like the sort of thing your company should be engaging in before it embarks on big projects but often fails to do, then check out the complete article (free registration required) for much more on how to generate a solid why statement.

Are you guilty of setting off on projects without a solid why statement to guide you?