Project management in some ways is like journalism in that leaders are often in need of getting key questions answered.  They need to do so  to be able to build a plan and lead their teams in the delivery of initiatives.  What I have noticed though is that we are often obsessed with answering the “what” and “how” questions almost at the expense of the “who” and “why” ones.  The “what” and “how” questions include:

  • What do we need to achieve?
  • What work needs to be completed?
  • How long do we have?
  • How much money will it take?

These are critical questions that need to be answered as they will in turn help us define the triple constraints of time, cost, and scope.  Addressing these questions will also allow us to establish the baseline and define critical success factors in delivering the project.  However, the “who” and “why” questions are just as important if not more.  They include:

  • Who is interested in the project?
  • Why are they interested in the project?
  • Who will do the work?
  • Why will be undertake this effort?

Obviously these two sets of questions are not the only questions that the project manager and the team must address, however, the point is that on our quest to define clearly the scope of work as well as the time and cost we often underestimate the key players affected by the project.  Answering the “who” and “why” questions allows us to dig a bit deeper to understand motivations for requirements and can ultimately position us to prioritize when we are confronted with conflict.

There are a variety of techniques that can be used to help us sort out information related to stakeholders and motivation.  These can be a simple categorization of stakeholders to a more complex mapping of requirements to stakeholders based on importance and impact.  Whatever the technique might be, the important thing is to ensure that the project team addresses these questions long before the baseline is finalized and the project is authorized.

During training sessions I invite participants to discuss which side of the triple constraints they prefer to control the most time, cost, or scope. The discussion is always lively and individuals provide great justification as to why they prefer to manage using a time boxed technique for example as opposed to letting the scope drive the other two sides of the triangle.  However what I find very interesting in these discussions is that the stakeholders and the reasoning behind doing the work often take a back seat to the other important elements of the project.

Instead of starting out asking the questions that lead to scope definition or identifying the time/cost constraints, a better approach is to start by asking about the reason people/groups are interested in the project.  By trying to understand who the key people are and how they view the project, we can be better positioned to plan the project and execute it.

Another important thing to keep in mind related to questions is the fact that the answers that we might get at the beginning of the project could change during the project lifecycle.  Key stakeholders may come or go, requirements may shift, and priorities may adjust.  As such, we have to establish a discipline of asking questions at key milestones that will allow us to validate our initial plans to ensure success.

Asking questions is a mix of science and art and requires that project manager to bring to bear past experience while leveraging team knowledge to ensure that parameters are set effectively and risks are identified early.  There is not such thing as the perfect question or perfect answer for that matter.  The key is to constantly be prepared to ask and challenge assumptions.