Exploring Project Benefits

There’s an old quote from Harvard Business School professor Theodore Levitt that goes, “People don’t want to buy a quarter inch drill bit, they want a quarter inch hole!”  One of the main insights from this statement is that businesses must shift their thinking away from an internal focus of what they produce, and instead focus externally on what the customer is trying to accomplish.  If they continuously focus on what the customer is trying to achieve, they’ll be able to continuously evolve their business and maintain relevant.  With that in mind, I would argue that people aren’t even interested in the quarter inch hole.  Typically the quarter inch hole is part of a larger effort to build, create, or repair something else.

This brings up the difficult topic of benefit definition and trying to sort out what a project may actually be trying to accomplish.  It’s been my experience that many project managers focus primarily on the “drill bit.”  This shouldn’t be surprising since their role is often perceived as delivery and execution.  That said, it’s important that every stakeholder does their part to ensure that the project delivers the desired outcome, and if it’s off track, to regroup to ensure the outcome is achieved, even if the original scope or deliverables have to change.       

To help teams manage this challenge, and minimize theoretical benefit debates, I recommend a simple to approach.  I call it the “So You Can” or “SYC” technique.  Here’s how it works:

  1. Identify the core deliverables of the project.
  2. Create a statement by adding “so you can…” after the deliverable
  3. Keep doing that until you reach a high level benefit that becomes less meaningful for the project
  4. You’ll then have a “benefit spectrum” to explore at the appropriate level.

For example, let’s say you’re leading a project team responsible for creating an eCommerce module that will be installed on a company’s website.  Your SYC might look something like this:

We are providing a new eCommerce function on the website

  • So you can…. list our products online
  • So you can…. provide customers another channel to buy our products
  • So you can… attract new and different buyers who don’t want to shop in store
  • So you can… match the capabilities of other competitors
  • So you can… increase sales
  • So you can… improve profitability
  • So you can… generate more value for shareholders

As you can see this is primarily a brainstorming technique to help identify potential benefits of the deliverable.  It’s up to the team to identify and validate benefits that may be most relevant. 

Once the benefits are identified, then it’s up to the team to do the tricky work of:

  1. Predicting the likely benefit
  2. Determining how to measure the benefit
  3. Then, once the benefits are defined, the next challenge is to  also helps identify potential measures and topics to explore and understand.  For example

Will the product attract new customers or cannibalize the ones we have

Can increase sales be directly attributed to this new function.

How much more do we have to sell in order to justify the cost of the new function