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Questions??
by Sloan Campbell

 
   
 
   

There are a number of things (not as many as there use to be, but still some) that puzzle me in everyday business, the latest one is the unpredictable responses we receive to the Questions we ask.

A question may be either a linguistic expression used to make a request for information, or else the request itself made by such an expression. This information is provided with an answer.

Questions are normally put or asked using interrogative sentences. But they can also be presented in imperative sentences, which normally express commands: "Tell me what 2 + 2 is"; conversely, some expressions, such as "Would you pass the butter?," have the grammatical form of questions but function as requests for action, not for answers.1.

Questions are a very powerful tool in the Project management world, it is a great way to obtain information or help … however … many people often get offended when questioned. If you add to this the claim that some people 'knew the answer to the question they asked, before they asked it' … questions present somewhat of a conundrum.

Society has been enthralled with questions for decades … take, for instance, the game Twenty Questions. Twenty Questions is a popular spoken parlour game for two or more players. It encourages deductive reasoning and creativity.

One player is chosen to be the answerer. That person chooses a subject but does not reveal this to the others. All other players are questioners. They each take turns asking a question which can be answered with a simple "Yes" or "No." In variants of the game, multiple state answers may be included such as the answer "Maybe." The answerer answers each question in turn. Sample questions could be: "Is it in this room?" or "Is it bigger than a breadbox?" Lying is not allowed, as it would ruin the game. If a questioner guesses the correct answer, that questioner wins and becomes the answerer for the next round. If 20 questions are asked without a correct guess, then the answerer has stumped the questioners and gets to be the answerer for another round.2.

Hmmm … deductive reasoning and creativity, excellent Project Management skills.

Remember the first questions you asked or you were asked as a Project Manager?

  • What is a Project ?
  • What is Project Success?
  • Why do Projects Succeed?
  • How Can I Improve the Chances of Project Success?
  • How do I Get Started Managing My Project?

Would your answers be different now ? … Well what do you know, another question.

It is my personal opinion that you can never ask too many questions and nor is there ever a dumb/stupid question. I am also a firm believer that you need to ask your questions in a smart way. Before you ask your question(s) … think about your question (s), try to answer the question(s) yourself, prepare your question (s) and NEVER assume you are entitled to an answer.

It isn't difficult to spark a heated discussion between project managers, particularly when the subject under discussion is the level of technical specialization required to do our jobs.

A project manager needs to be recognized by his team as having a high level of expertise in at least one area. It doesn't really matter whether that expertise is directly relevant to the current project, so long as the manager can demonstrate ability and enthusiasm within some specialized subject.

I completely agree with Patrick Andrews who wrote the article 'How Stupid Questions Lead to Smart Answers' when he said, "perhaps the biggest benefit to having clearly limited technical knowledge is that I'm free to ask seemingly stupid questions. This freedom is one of the most useful tools in managing software development (some would argue that it's central to all forms of management)."

Some examples of "stupid" questions worth asking are:

  • Why are we still using this tool?
  • Can you remind me why we decided on this approach?
  • How much does this procedure actually cost us?
  • Can anyone explain this problem to me in simple terms?
  • Who's our best person at dealing with this kind of problem?
  • What does that acronym actually stand for?
  • If you were in my shoes, what would you do?
  • Why is your idea better than the way we usually do things?

Don't be afraid to look at established tasks, procedures and "received wisdom" completely afresh. You can inject a lot of fun by asking 'stupid' questions. You know you're on exactly the right track when someone says, "I really don't know. I never thought of that. Good question. I'll find out".

You need to be very careful in extending this approach to your customer or to senior management within your organization. Not surprisingly, someone who is paying large amounts of money for your services will not take kindly to being given a demonstration of your apparent lack of knowledge. If you genuinely need to understand a specialized issue, it's always a good idea to preface your questions with, "I'm no expert in your business, so excuse me if this question seems naïve."

Rather than pretend to be an all-encompassing technical expert, learn to turn your limited technical expertise to your advantage. The trick for effective project management is to really listen to the answers … and never ask the same "dumb" question twice.3.

If questions are so important and represent such a powerful tool, why do the majority of people answer questions asked of them incorrectly, partially or not at all … loss of Power … pure and simple !

As a Project Manager you are probably a Type-A Personality and a Control Freak, otherwise you wouldn't be successful at your job. A Type A personality, also known as the Type A Behavior Pattern, has a set of characteristics that includes being impatient, excessively time-conscious, insecure about one's status, highly competitive, hostile and aggressive, and incapable of relaxation. Type A individuals are often highly achieving workaholics who multi-task, drive themselves with deadlines, and are unhappy about the smallest of delays. They have been described as stress junkies. 4. In psychology-related slang, control is the attempt to impose excessive predictability and direction on others or on events, often associated with insecurity or a lack of trust. Frequently, a person labeled "a control freak" has a position of authority or superiority in a relationship; however, the person's obsessiveness often extends beyond the acceptable range of control.5.

Sound familiar!

Now back to my explanation … In this day and age when virtually every industry is trying to do more with less, Knowledge is Power. I truly believe, rightly or wrongly, that people have absolutely no desire to relinquish any of their Power by answering questions of any kind. Much of this has come from the way that we treat our experienced business colleagues … we basically cast them aside in search of the Better, Cheaper, Faster 'mousetrap' because we believe that they are no longer valuable assets to our teams. What motivation have we given them to even want to share?

This is a crucial mistake.

It is on this point that I think that we could learn a great deal from Japanese society. A key principle in the stratification of Japanese society is age. "Acting one's age" may be more important in Japan than in some other societies, resulting in relatively narrow age-ranges for such life cycle-events as university education, first job, or marriage. This pattern fits with the value placed on playing social roles appropriately. Old age ideally represents a time of relaxation of social obligations, assisting with the family farm or business without carrying the main responsibility, socializing, and receiving respectful care from family and esteem from the community. 6.

As a Project Manager, the answers that your experienced team members provide to your questions could be the basis of your Knowledge Management repository and the foundation of your Lesson Learned investigation prior to the Initiation of your project. If they're not, you are not using all of the resources at your disposal and that is just plain stupid (for lack of a better word). I remind you of the Chinese proverb "One who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; one who does not ask a question remains a fool forever." Enough said …

Businesses are constantly adding new communication options, but they very rarely take any away. It is also rare of them to ever provide the required amount of guidance for success. Project Managers spend 90% of their time communicating (i.e. the process whereby information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs and behaviours), it is the single most important skill of any successful Project Manager. Human communication is the process of making sense out of the world and sharing that sense with others … take time to ask questions and LISTEN to the answers.

A successful project team starts with the Project Manager. Before your team begins to work on a project, you must have a vision for who your team members will be, how they will communicate with one another and how you will define for them the key goals of the project.

How can any of this be accomplished without asking or answering Questions … simply stated, it can't !

Questions have great power. The right question asked at the right time can change the direction of your project. Hence, the quality of the questions that we ask ourselves is VERY important. It is for the same reason that we need to choose our company very carefully. With the right people around us, for some reason if we miss asking the right questions, someone on our team might. 7.

I will leave you with the following quote from Charles Connolly "Questions focus our thinking. Ask empowering questions like: What's good about this? What's not perfect about it yet? What am I going to do next time? How can I do this and have fun doing it?"

The rest is up to you … Go ahead, question everything.

Notes

1. Questions: http://www.maxwideman.com/papers/questions/questions.pdf

2. Trivia Architect: www.funtrivia.com

3. Why People Don't Listen At Work: http://www.hopkins-business-communication-training.com/six_reasons_people_dont_listen.html

References

1. Questions: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Questions

2. Twenty Questions: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twenty_Questions

3. Smart Answers: http://builder.com.com/5100-6315_14-1049536.html

4. Type A Personality: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Type_A_personality

5. Control Freak: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Control_freak

6. Elderly People in Japan: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elderly_people_in_Japan

7. The Power of Questions: http://www.squidoo.com/questions


     
   
     
   

The Author

 

Sloan Campbell is an Implementation Project Manager at SOCAN (Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada). SOCAN is an organization that administers the communication and performing rights of virtually the world's entire repertoire of copyright-protected music, when it is used in Canada. You can e-mail your comments to the author at scampbell@elcan.com .

     
   
     
   
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Copyright 2007 by Sloan Campbell. All rights reserved.

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