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Making progress on a complex project requires a lot of onion peeling. And it can bring tears to your eyes. Some people are naturally inquisitive and asking the next question comes naturally. Others struggle. In this blog, I offer seven smart project questions that you need to master. Learning to start with these questions will help you understand what comes next.

A big part of working with clients who haven’t yet figured out what they want is learning to ask the right questions. I frequently work with clients who haven’t figured out what they want. For the client who is price conscious, one solution is to simply have the client draw/write out what they want. But some clients can’t do that.

Sometimes figuring out the solution to a problem is a trial and error process and asking questions is an integral part of the process. So, we are often asking questions, such as:

  • Why are we doing this?
  • Who is going to do that?
  • When is the deadline for that?
  • What might happen if we did “X”?

In my capacity as a project manager, I often work with clients that don’t know what they want. How can we help people figure out what they want in a confusing world with so many options and too little time for exploring the options?

What is your objective?

I’ve written about this a lot. And yet there is often confusion – particularly when you are undertaking a project in phases. Some people will want to focus on the longer-term objective. It may be more inspirational. Others will be focused on what needs to happen in this phase. Others on the team may be more focused on the objective for the particular activity that they are working on.

There are no ironclad rules here. If you are the project manager or project sponsor, ask yourself which objective will most likely help your team rally when the going gets rough. The important part is to define a crystal clear objective that everyone understands.

Activities might well be explained with an objective, but this is different from the project objective. Everyone needs to know the project objective. I like to think of it this way. If the CEO gets on the elevator and asks what you are working on, do you have an answer?

Why are you trying to do this?

Once you have identified that crystal clear objective, ask why you are doing it. This is how you move from a statement on paper to an objective that captures people’s hearts. 

How will you know if you are successful?

Suppose your project is to develop a complex web application for a client. What result needs to happen before you throw a victory party? Keep in mind that software development is a never-ending process. There will always be another tweak that you could make. Is there a soft-launch date, followed by a hard-launch date? Does the client have market success expectations that he/she has not told you about?

For another example, take a nonprofit event. Is success measured by money raised, fully engaged volunteers, participating localities, paying attendees, or good publicity achieved? Nonprofits can’t have it all, particularly on outdoor events, where weather is uncontrollable.

The important part here is to define, in writing, what will constitute success, in a way that can be measured. And while you are at it, define failure.

What is most important? Schedule, scope, cost, quality, or risks.

In every project, there will be trade-offs. You simply can’t have everything in your defined scope done fast, cheap, high quality, and without risks. It’s easier to navigate project pitfalls when you know what is important to your client and/or your management team.

Who are the people that you need to get to know?

So often, I see projects get started with a team of people who have no idea about the other people who are trying to sabotage their project, or the quiet people who could be their biggest advocates. Identify as many stakeholders as you can. Get to know the ones that could drive your project in one direction or another.

What are you NOT going to do?

Everyone who has ever done a project knows to define the scope. What you are planning to do? The question that often goes unasked is: what are we NOT going to do? It feels like a question with a never-ending answer. Obviously, you aren’t going to write down every single thing that you aren’t going to do. But, if you had a conversation about doing something and decided against it, write that down in your scope exclusions.

How do you want to manage this project?

Every project is different. In the early days of the project, I recommend that you get clarity on how you want to manage the project. A key question is the level of planning that is needed. Do you need flexibility or do you need to try and nail down some certainty? How will you handle scope changes, cost overruns, outstanding issues, communications, and risk management? (And if this question gives you a headache, give me a call.)

What do you need to know in order to take one step that will move you forward?

After you begin executing a project, there will be times when you don’t know what to do. Uncertainty is a given in project work. It’s helpful to remember that you don’t need to see the entire picture. You just need to know a few things in order to take the next step. So what is the one thing that you can do to move the project forward and what do you need to know in order to take that step?

Stay tuned for next week’s blog, where I talk about whether asking these questions is enough for project success. And, sign up for my newsletter if you want more tips.