“Question everything,” in some form or another is a quote attributed to many different people throughout history. From Euripides to Einstein to countless philosophers, poets, and teachers, we’re always taught that sometimes the questions are more important than the answers themselves. How does this fit in the world of providing business and technology solutions?

As project managers, program leads, architects, analysts, consultants, and the like, we are typically tasked with solving a problem or breaking it down to its core essence: changing something(s) for someone(s). We are always driving from current state towards a future state, from X to Y, from point A to point B. The paths follow the same pattern along the way.

1. Where are they right now?

2. Where do they want to be?

3. How do we get there?

Ideally, we organize our questions equally along those same lines. However, many times we get overly focused on one question and at the expense of properly assessing the other two questions.

As I was pondering how best to illustrate my point, family life handed me the most simple, yet appropriate example, “Honey, can you pick up some milk on your way home?” Immediately my brain kicks into gear asking questions only about the destination. (Where do they want to be?) Wait…what about the other two questions? I could miss something critical along the way if I do not take a moment to think through all three questions.

Where are they right now?

Didn’t we just buy milk yesterday? Did they look in the back of the fridge? Do they really need it today? Can it wait until our bigger trip to the grocery store planned for tomorrow? (Prioritization) Is everyone operating from the same assumptions? Does the person making the request truly understand our current state? (Subject matter expert)

Throughout the life-cycle of a project, we should always give consideration to the current state of affairs. Challenge assumptions. Question whether or not the stakeholders who are making the requests have all the necessary information. (If my child asks me to pick up milk, rather than my spouse, I can usually assume they didn’t look hard enough.) Ensure that everyone agrees on the current state of affairs, otherwise you risk spending time developing solutions for problems that may not even exist.

Where do they want to be?

What kind of milk do they want? Skim? Whole? 2%? Organic? What brand? What size? Do they really just want milk or are they going to ask for something else too? (Scope creep) Am I sure I understand the success criteria? Am I making any assumptions?

If we stay too focused on what the final outcome may be, we may risk not sufficiently addressing the other two questions.

How do we get there?

Do I drive to the main store or stop at the more “convenient” store and pay the premium? Do I have enough money? Do I have my wallet? Is there enough money in the bank? Do I have enough gas in the car for the extra stop? What’s traffic like? How much additional time is this going to take? Is dinner going to be cold now when I get home? (Timeline and impact analysis) Do we have the necessary resources to traverse between where we are and where we want to be?

A good project manager continues to evaluate and re-evaluate their resources continuously to ensure that any changes in either the current state or future state can still be handled. A good analogy for us to consider is the ability of “map” applications on our smart phones: to reroute us based on changing conditions. Similarly, a good project manager should “re-route” based on changing project conditions from the starting point to the end point, and all of the conditions in-between.

In order to maintain effective oversight over the whole project, start each day with asking at least these three questions:

Where are we? Where do we want to be? How are we trying to get there?

You’ll be a lot less likely to encounter surprises along your journey.

Michael Shugarman

About Michael Shugarman