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The 5Ws of a Project

………temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result… (PMBoK 5th Edition)

………..a temporary organization that is created for the purpose of delivering one or more business products according to an agreed business case… (Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2, 2009 edition)

If you work with projects or in the project management space, you can tell these definitions did not exactly dissect and dimension what project really is. Amongst others courses, I train project management either targeted at preparing individuals to write and take a certification exam or helping participants gain better understanding of the concept and practice of Project Management During those training sessions, I usually get more engagement and assimilation from the participants when I use the concept of 5Ws of a PROJECT to explain “what is a PROJECT”.

To better understand this concept, let’s take a look at a short case study:

ABC Ventures, a retail supermarket dealing in household and grocery products with three retail outlets realized a drop in patronage/sales for three consecutive months, and this had a negative impact on the bottom-line of the organization. To really understand the root-cause of this drop, the company hired a consultant to conduct a study. The consultant deployed an online customer feedback survey targeted at the organization’s customers and prospective customers, with the objective of identifying service delivery gaps, and ultimately eliciting needs and approaches to better service their clients and customers.
The survey received overwhelming responses from current customers and potential customers, and upon analysis, the consultant identified a tight schedule of the customers, and the distance between the customers and the retail stores as the two main bottlenecks, and also identified convenience as a value-driver for the customers. The consultant ultimately recommended an online retail store (e-commerce website) as a way to drive patronage.

Hence, ABC ventures commission the development of an e-commerce site for Q2 2017.

Now, let’s use this case study to explain the 5Ws of a PROJECT

  1. WHY; The very first step in defining a project is to understand the needs/problem or opportunities within the project context. This is more like defining the problem statement. Without a thorough and in-depth understanding of the NEEDs within a business domain, it becomes very difficult to articulate the PROBLEM STATEMENT. This step involves understanding the current state analysis, asking questions such as: How does the business currently operate? What are the issues with the current situation/process, OR what are the things preventing the business from achieving its set target? What are the impacts of the identified issues? The combination of these questions provides a ground for developing and articulating a problem statement. The WHY could also be an opportunity: there is no problem or issue with the current state, but there are opportunities to do more that the organization currently does. Could be in form of a government policy or environmental trend. From our case study above, the WHY is a drop in patronage or sales in all the three retail stores run by ABC Ventures due to the geographically dispersed nature of the customers’ vis-a-vis their tight schedule. Every other thing (the other 4Ws will be built upon this)

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  3. WHAT: Following up immediately from the WHY (or better still, the problem statement) is the question: WHAT can we do to address the above needs? There are usually more than one possible recommendations to address a need. From our case study above, there are possibly two other possible solutions, such as expansion of retail stores to other locations, or a “mobile” store, but upon review of the possible recommendations, the management of ABC Ventures decided on “e-Commerce development”. This is the WHAT of our case study to address the WHY.
    There are a number of methods or techniques used in selecting the best “WHAT” in any context, but a fundamental step involves developing business cases for each of the possible options. A business case will typically include sections such as the need we are trying to address, the available options, the cost implication of each of the options, the benefits of each of the options, the risks involved in each of the options and a “do-nothing” option.
  4. WHO: No necessarily the third in terms of sequence, but after identifying the WHY and the WHAT of a Project, another component of the 5Ws is the WHO of the project. This component speaks to STAKEHOLDERS of ABC Ventures, and it includes the current customers, the potential customers, the management and staff of ABC Ventures and any other stakeholder (individual, group) with an interest in or, anyone who might be affected by the implementation of the e-commerce website, or the finished product itself. The “WHO” is as important as the other Ws. For the project to be successful, ABC Ventures need to understand the profile of the end users and everyone that would interact with the e-commerce website. This involves understanding the geography, the demography and the psychographics of the target end users (the consumers, the operational support etc). The understanding of the WHO will not change the choice of e-commerce, but will greatly influence the way the e-commerce is built (for example, being mobile-compatible if majority of the customers use mobile devices more) or creating a mobile app version of the e-commerce website…etc.
  5. WHEN: According to PMI, for an exercise or initiative to be recognized as a project, it must have a specific start and end time (among other indices). This speaks to WHEN. Not determining when the project is to be delivered will make the exercise open-ended, and hence affect the benefits realization. From our case study, the WHEN is Q2 2017. So, at the end of Q2 2017, all the stakeholders would expect to have an online shop, and the management of ABC Ventures can expect to have some changes in sales, all things being equal. Recall, one of the yardsticks for measuring the success of a project is the timely completion. I believe this is clear in and by itself and requires not much explanation.
  6. WHERE: The last, and most definitely not the least W in our 5Ws of a project is WHERE. Now I must say that some projects might not necessarily have the WHERE component vividly, but somewhere within the project, there is the WHERE component. For our case study, the WHERE could be the location to host the e-commerce website and any other possible consideration for location?

PS: Whilst the arrangement of the last 3Ws is not very important, the first 2Ws must follow the sequence used.

Putting everything together, the below describes our case study using the 5Ws of a PROJECT

Due to drop in patronage as a result of distance and geographic constraints (WHY), ABC Ventures is developing an e-commerce website (WHAT) for her customers (WHO) by Q2 2017 (WHEN) , that will be hosted on a cloud server (WHERE).

I would like to read comments on how you have been able to adopt the 5Ws of a Project on any project you have been involved with.

Bola Adesope


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