Needs versus requirements

Much has been written about why projects, and in particular digital projects, don’t succeed. Be it lack of executive sponsorship, poorly documented requirements, technology problems, simply lack of follow-up and the list goes on.

At a recent Boye group meeting in Munich, Claudia Urschbach from Süddeutsche Zeitung took a different approach by looking behind stakeholders and their requirements and trying to get to a deeper understanding of their needs and anxieties. Might our lack of appreciation for these basic human emotions be exactly why projects gets stalled and too often fail?

Understanding needs

In most projects that I’ve been involved in there has been a reasonable understanding of key requirements. Some also have a carefully developed requirements specification detailing functional, design and technical aspects of the project. But what about the needs of the executive sponsor, the needs of the project manager, the needs of the designer and everyone else involved?

Claudia has worked with user experience since 1999, incl. a few years at the BBC in London before moving to Munich and joining Süddeutsche. In her workshop at the group meeting, Claudia referenced American psychologist David McClelland and his work on motivation need theory. As shown on the illustration, the driving factors of human actions are below the water.


Some usual needs involved in projects, incl. the need for being heard, the need to get a promotion, the need to be seen as competent. If your projects fail to address those, why should your stakeholder invest time and resources in the project?

As the famous management quote goes from Harvard Business School marketing professor Theodore Levitt:

“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!

To paraphrase Claudia, my take away from the workshop, was that most probably don’t want a drill nor a hole, but instead we have to think deeper to ensure that our digital initiatives stay on track.

Understanding fears and anxieties

Taking a step deeper from the needs are the fears and anxieties. What might go wrong in a project? Could I get fired? Might the project make me look silly or even incompetent? Might I miss my annual bonus?

In my experience, these fears are rarely made explicit during a project. Instead they reveal themselves indirectly, when people delay projects, make it difficult to move forward and in more or less subtle ways try to distance themselves from a project.

Making it work in your organisation

The advice from Claudia was not necessarily to spend much time with the entire project team on what you might consider pop psychology, but rather use your deeper understanding of needs and fears, to have 1:1 conversations at the onset of the project to help drive the project forward.

According to Claudia, it is worth for a project manager to systematically think through each stakeholder group’s perspectives on the project focusing beyond their requirements on their needs and fears. This process should be part of a project managers risk assessment of a project and ideally is repeated and reviewed throughout the project.