Asking the right questions

I have been looking on LinkedIn a lot lately and trying to answer some of the questions raised in discussions. I found it hard to give a useful suggestion most of the time because the question was not asked with enough context.

Asking questions is a skill. For a consultant, PM or a business analyst, it’s a critical skill. It’s about asking the right questions in the right way.

What are the right questions? That depends on your objective. Who, what, when, why, how are a good place to start. Thinking about your end goal will help determine what information you need.

  • What are we trying to do?
  • When do you need to have it done?
  • Who will be doing the work, who will be affected by the outcomes?
  • Why are you trying to achieve this?
  • How have you done this in the past, how can we get started…?

These are all excellent questions. When the questions are framed this way the gap is context. When you start to form your questions, think about the people you will be asking, is there ambiguity in the context? Will you need to explain the background? Can your answer come in a yes/no format – this is not what you are aiming for most of the time.

Let’s look at an example.

Question:

Do you have a PMO?

Answer:

Yes or no.

This can be misleading when you go to implement a solution.

If you realize there’s more information, you might ask what does the PMO do? If you go down this route, you’ll get the information you need, eventually, but you are setting up more of an interrogation than an interview.

A new approach:

Question:

Often an organization has formal or informal project support, methodology, training and prioritization. How is this handled in your company?

Answer:

Depending on your client, you’ll get a different answer – what you will get, though is a conversation rather than an answer. The conversation will lead to a richer understanding of what, why, how, who, when.

If you think about the bigger picture of the information you need, you’ll start to form more open and encompassing questions and the result will be a better understanding of your client.

Do you have any success stories, or horror stories?

Posted in communication, Professionalism, self employment | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

How do you add value to your client?

One of the questions that comes up on discussion boards and with clients is what does the Project Manager do? I have to say I’ve had my struggles in answering this question in the past.

I’ve been chatting with clients over the last week and I think I now have an answer – at least for me, your answer might be different.

I take the complex and simplify it. When my client says “it’s a lot of work”, I get excited. I can take the ‘lot of work’ and make it manageable. I love doing that!

Yes, I report on status, I manage issues and risks and I communicate and support others in communicating. But, what I do first, is simplify. I remember a book I read on consulting that answered the question ‘how do you eat an elephant’ – one bite at a time.

So, I take the elephant and I carve it into bite sized pieces. I pull the overwhelming list of activities out of my client’s mind and give it back to them as a schedule.

What’s your answer to the question “what does a project manager do?”

Happy PMing.

Posted in execution, motivation, Professionalism, self management | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Trust and delegation

Hi, this week let’s look at the concept of trust and how it affects your ability to manage a successful project.

As the title suggests, this issue hits on the ability of team members to trust someone to do the job. Sometimes it’s the sponsor, and sometimes a stakeholder, and sometimes it’s a subject matter expert.

Why don’t people trust? Well, I’d say the 99% of the time it’s not about thinking the person won’t do a good job – their desire and motivation, but more about the can’t - about their knowledge and ability. The can’t is where you hear things like ‘it will be faster to do it myself than show someone else’ or ‘they don’t have the experience’ or ‘they don’t have the time to learn’.

In a project the can’t is often true at the beginning. The project is making a major change and only one expert, or the sponsor, knows what the actual outcomes look like. There are two ways I see of dealing with this.

One is to do the upskilling while the project is executing. You involve the team with the experts so they learn the technical differences and develop the new processes. This can increase engagement and adoption, but it will slow the project down.

The other way is to have the experts develop the new processes and then apply change management, training and support at the launch. This can move the project along faster,  but will make the post implementation support longer.

What do I think is the best choice?

As usual, there isn’t a best choice. If you have a legislative deadline your ability to slow down the project to bring everyone up to speed is constrained – deadlines don’t move! So, you use the experts and manage the learning curve.

If you have any ability to move a deadline, I like bringing people along throughout the project. It minimizes the likelihood of the solution failing after the experts leave and maximizes the probability of long term adoption of the solution.

What are your thoughts?

A few interesting links

About. com

neen james

ezine articles

Posted in motivation, Team management | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Communication – why is it so hard?

I’ve been looking around at blogs for inspiration for today’s post. It seems like communication is a popular topic for bloggers. It is a complex topic with plenty of aspects for thousands of blog posts, even though it sounds simple. How hard is it to be clear, paraphrase for clarity, follow up, listen… and all the other tips people have out there.

Well, the answer is, it’s hard because everyone has buttons that set them off, some people know how to control their own buttons, some people don’t know what their buttons are so they always seem to be going off on an unexpected direction. It’s hard because we don’t communicate in a vacuum; the pm’s voice is only one of many the person is listening to at any given time. And, it’s hard because the project priorities are not the only priorities the person has, often work priorities get drowned out in personal priorities.

Yes, so it’s hard, but you can’t give up. You are a PM; if something isn’t hard, it’s not worth doing. You are super leader, problem solver, communicator, change manager, and there is no kryptonite excuse.

Communication never gets easy. If you think you’ve figured out the team, or the person, you are living in an old paradigm. The expression, the only constant is change, applies to people too. As soon as you find success in working with a team, something will change; you need to keep your spidey senses pinging the environment and adjusting your style to accommodate the needs of your team.

How do you do this? Well, the steps are pretty simple. You need to be clear in your communications, you need to paraphrase, or ask them to paraphrase to ensure common understanding, and you need to follow up.  The caveat to this – aka the first complication – is that you need to do it without coming across as a micro manager.

Complication #2 – you have to understand your own emotional triggers and control them. Just because you’ve told this person four times how to present the status of their work package, doesn’t mean you can snap at them on the fifth time. Their functional manager may have asked for different information and confused the issue.

Complication #3 – rumors can confuse the message. The worse situation is when you need to have the team pull together to meet a deadline and the rumor mill is buzzing with information about your project being cancelled. You can’t control the rumor mill; you can be clear and constant about the truth, as you know it.

Complication #4 – things change. You may have just informed your team about a key decision that impacts the budget, scope or resources on your project, only to have your sponsor tell you the decision has been reversed, deferred, or otherwise changed. Now you will have to re-communicate to the team.  Which is a nice lead into…

Complication # 5 – people don’t trust that the message won’t change. This lack of credibility can cripple a communication plan. You need to figure out how to deliver messages that change or seem to conflict with credibility and confidence. It may sound impossible, but functional managers do it all the time. This is where your ability to be confident and honest in communicating is put to the test.

Here are some links to article on communication.

Communication styles

Communication Styles at Work

Effective Communication

Posted in communication, organizational savvy, Professionalism, Team management | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Are you getting the truth?

A project manager needs to hear the truth from the team and the sponsor. In a project that is making significant changes in an organization, the PM can only be successful if they get the truth. It’s not a case of “you can’t handle the truth” but more of a case of “you can handle anything as long as you get the truth.”

Let’s look at this from the team, then the stakeholders, and finally the sponsor.

The project manager is responsible to ensure the project team has the information they need to successfully deliver on the project objectives. The other side of that coin is that the project team needs to make sure the PM knows everything they need to know to successfully manage the budget, schedule and scope of the project.

What happens when the team starts cranking the sunshine pump? Let’s say there’s a deadline coming up and it’s a key decision point. The PM follows up on the progress half way through the work package. The team states everything is on track, they’ll make the deadline. Well, great news! Except, the team knows that they might be on time but the next task needs to be completed by a person who isn’t dedicated to the project and is known for being late with deliverables.

As the PM, you need to know what issues are coming up so you can handle them. As the team, they may not want to get the other person in trouble, or may have spoken up in the past and been ignored. Your job is to dig a bit deeper. You don’t ask how the team is doing and leave it at that; it’s too easy for them to dodge the hard message. What you do is ask the next question, too; do you see anything coming up that might change the status of the deliverable? Or, you can try to challenge them by asking what could we do to come in early?

The trick is to ask more questions until you are sure there’s nothing hidden, without interrogating your team.  Don’t worry; over time you can build a level of trust with your team that will reduce their need to protect you from the truth.

Moving on to stakeholders; you may not get the truth you need from the stakeholders if there is something happening in their functional area that is considered confidential. This can slow down your project, or even put it off track.  How does this look? Often stakeholders will lose interest, or suddenly become more interested in your project. Or, they will question the goals of your project all over again. These behaviours should make your spidey senses tingle. I’ve had mixed success in dealing with this type of ‘untruthiness’. The most effective approach I’ve found is to take the helpful route; ask what you can do to help them deal with their concerns.. Unfortunately, I have sometimes found myself plugging ahead with the project knowing something is about to go sideways but not having anything to hang a risk or issue on.

Finally, your sponsor may not give you the information you need. It seems counter intuitive that your sponsor, the person you are doing the project for, would not provide you with what you need to be successful. Believe me, it happens. In my experience, it is usually politics underlying this behaviour. The only effective way I’ve found to deal with this is to accept that the sponsor has information they can’t share, and keep the project as on track as you can. The politics maybe temporary, or it may be the first steps towards closing your project. The important thing to remember is that it is not within your control. Unless you are given other directions from your sponsor, you have to assume nothing has changed. You are still expected to deliver on your project.

One of the underlying causes of sunshine pumping is simply organizational behaviour. No one wants to seem negative, or finger pointing. No one wants to get someone in trouble. I’m sure you’ve all worked with the team member who consistently gets things wrong, or causes problems on the team. Did anyone try to get the problem resolved, or did they just work around it.

Another cause of, is lack of trust.  People may have been burned in the past when they raised an issue and don’t want to risk the fall out again.

The important tip this week, handle what you can. You are responsible for ensuring the project is successful. You are not responsible for changing the organizational culture of the company – except if that’s what your project is supposed to accomplish.

This site has some good tips on questioning

Here’s another site with tips on questioning

Good luck out in project management world this week.

Posted in communication, organizational savvy, Professionalism, Team management | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why you should welcome conflict?

Most people would say they hate and avoid conflict. In this environment of staff cuts, there are probably a lot of people ducking conflict to keep under the radar. In my experience it’s not conflict, but confrontation that people hate.  The problem with that is they avoid conflict; that’s one straight path to confrontation in my experience. By the time the issue becomes critical – or often, not that issue but another – there are so many frustrations in the emotional saddle bags that situations go from nothing to confrontation like a Ducati on the salt flats.  Handle conflict well and you show up as a valuable employee; handle it badly, and you are part of the problem.

Let me explain why I think these two similar concepts are so different. Confrontation carries with it a winner loser relationship, a sense of battle. Conflict leaves an opening for clarification and resolution. For example, as PMs we often have issues relating to resources. Taking a confrontational approach means everyone who needs the resources decides their need is the most critical, and they all fight over that and the winner gets the resources and everyone else get a problem project. It becomes all about who’s the winner, and not about the project or the project portfolio. Taking a conflict resolution approach means everyone comes to the table to discuss solutions that best serve the project or portfolio. They work together to present recommendations to sponsors and everyone can win.

So, let’s step back into the real world where even I live. The real problem happens when people take a confrontational approach to conflict resolution. Some organizations have a culture of confrontation; the meaner dog will always win. If that’s your organization, play that game, or find a new organization. If you want to make a change in approach and your corporate culture is not junkyard dog, start by putting aside the idea that your needs are more important than anyone else’s.

You want to get to the point where people seek out conflict to resolve. When you get there, or even when you get nearer to ‘there’ than you are, confrontation will die away. Let’s go back to the resource example.

Your project and another project need the same QA resource at the same time to do the same task. Using conflict resolution means, you need to meet with the other PM. Your agenda is to discuss solutions to the conflict. Start with the other PM presenting their issue. That’s right, let them go first; that way you will be able to listen to their issue, paraphrase back and build trust before you state your issues. That means you listen to their needs, ask questions to clarify, and paraphrase from their point of view. It doesn’t mean you sit there nodding while you wait your turn to speak.

When you’ve understood their issue, you present your needs. How much of the capacity do you need; what wiggle room do you have in scheduling; why this QA resource is the only solution, and what is the ultimate impact on your project if you don’t get the resource. A key tip here, is to make sure you talk about the project, not you, and if you can talk about the impact on the organization’s portfolio, or even the business goals if you can. The purpose is not to build a case for how important your project is, but to build the resolution to a bigger goal than just the project.

The next step, after you’ve both laid out the issues, it’s time to look for mutual solutions. Often that’s possible; in fact, you might want to ask the QA resource for solutions, they are closest to the problem, after all. Most of the time, you will find a resolution in that meeting because you have both understood the facts of the problem. Sometimes, though, a problem is tough and will need more work.

The tip for this week: don’t avoid conflict, use this model for resolution

Start by understanding the problem from a project impact perspective

Then meet with the parties involved

Listen, ask questions, and paraphrase to understand the other point of view

Search for mutual solutions – meet as many of the project needs as you can.

Some interesting links

Academic Leadership Support

Mind Tools

Susan B Wilson (no relation)

Posted in communication, organizational savvy, Team management | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment