The importance of asking the right questions

The management of a project is one of those situations where, when it’s done right, it barely looks like it’s happening at all. Requirements are gathered, work is done, outcomes are achieved, all with a cheery smile on our faces and a song in our hearts. Effective project management is built on a foundation of thorough planning, open communication, and disciplined adherence to mutually agreed processes.

However.

Life is imperfect, projects are imperfect, and people are imperfect. Uncertainty is ever-present, change is inevitable, and the Rumsfeldian triangle of “known-knowns, known-unknowns, and unknown-unknowns” threaten us at every turn.

Luckily, I arrived into project management already well versed in the flawed nature of existence. This has meant my project management journey has been less about overcoming existential crises and far more about how, despite the relentless yoke of disappointment, we can still ensure projects are completed on time, on budget, and with minimal loss of life.

In my experience, the strongest weapon we have against projects going awry is honesty combined with a healthy supression of ego. Project management is usually seen as a problem of logistics and organisation, and I don’t doubt that this is a large part of it. However, my view is that managing the creation of complex digital products is, more than anything else, a problem of personal psychology.

What do I mean by this?

Our clients are experts in their own domains, whether it’s healthcare research or education funding or something else entirely. The first step in my being able to help them is to honestly explore what I don’t know about their domain, and work with them to fill in knowledge gaps that might otherwise lead to incorrect assumptions. In other words, I start the process by embracing my own ignorance and communicating that with our clients.

This approach is counter to a lot of day to day practices. If someone asks me a question, I generally think about what I do know, rather than what I don’t know. I am, after all, the product of an education system that typically awards points for regurgitating memorised facts over challenging received assumptions. I feel uncomfortable when I don’t know the answer to a question, because I have learned to associate this feeling with failure. When it comes to the sheer range of domains our clients cover, however, it is inevitable that I will bump up against the limits of my existing knowledge base on a regular basis.

It can feel risky to expose a lack of knowledge. Naturally I want a client to have confidence in me, and displaying a lack of domain-specific knowledge can feel counter to that goal. The biggest psychological hurdle to get over, then, is the acceptance that not knowing the answers at the beginning is a normal state to be in; embracing that it signifies opportunity rather than failure, and that the sooner we accept what we don’t know, the sooner we will be in a position to help our client achieve their goals. This is part of the reason we generally recommend a Discovery phase at the beginning of a project. It is during this period that we attack the Rumsfeldian triangle head on, embrace the things that we do not know, and build the foundation for the success of the project.

Encountering something new and unknown can be scary and intimidating.

This is ok.

In fact, this is more than ok – this is exactly what I love about managing projects at a company like Isotoma.

As a company we are experienced across a range of domains, and the knowledge does not all sit within one individual. We have a collective memory and level of expertise that allows us to meet the challenges that we face, an institutional memory of past problems and proven solutions. There will inevitably be times where we just don’t know enough about a domain to know the path forward instinctively, but by being honest about our limits and sharing a commitment to overcoming them, we grow as individuals and as a team.

It is tempting to think that we deliver great products because we always know the right thing to do, but I don’t think this is the case. In my view, we are good at what we do not because we always know the answers, but because we ask the right questions of our clients and of each other.

Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

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