Have you ever started work on a project, or critical task and then realized you were missing key information? It’s easy to jump from receiving an assignment right into work, only to discover that as the project gains complexity, it becomes more and more difficult to make decisions without undermining it.
The result? More activity, and less productivity. Work becomes less about making an impact, and more about completing tasks that only add up to busyness.
Does that happen to you?
If so, odds are, you’re not asking the right questions when projects get assigned or handed off to you. Here are three clarifying questions that will help get the information you need right from the start.
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1. What is the intent of this project or task?
Why are we doing this? It’s a simple question that we often neglect to ask. The point isn’t to question the validity of the assignment, although admittedly, sometimes the process of asking and answering this question forces people to think this through a bit more than they originally planned.
The point is to get to the root of the issue. To do so, you will likely have to ask more than once for clarification in this area, as whoever is the subject of these questions will often attempt to pass with providing a vague answer. To get the information you need, you have to keep them talking.
Ask follow up questions after every response. For example:
- Why did the CEO decide this?
- What do you think made the HR Director want to pursue this course of action?
- Why are we doing this now, rather than in the past or the future?
Assure the person you are asking that these questions are merely to ensure that you deliver what they expect and that having all this information before the start of work will prevent having to come back for clarification and reduce the chance of rework.
Remember, the task is not to cast doubt on the reasonableness of the project, it is to secure vital information that will help you invest your time, and the organization’s resources wisely.
2. How will we know we’ve succeeded?
The key to this question is to find out exactly what needs to happen for the project or task to be considered finished. Again, you must guard against vague answers by asking follow-up questions that seek out precisely who needs to be involved, what needs to be done, and by when. Further, draw out information about preferences in HOW the work is to be done.
Often, managers have specifications in mind for the way work is to be accomplished that they assume their employees know or understand. While it’s easy to say that the manager should know better, it’s your responsibility to ask these clarifying questions, even if you’re fairly sure about what is going to be said. You can’t control what your manager assumes others understand, but you CAN control whether or not you ask the right questions to find out.
3. When should I check in?
Ask this question to discern what your project sponsor is comfortable with you making on your own. Do they want regular updates, or are they fine with you making the decisions? Even so, are there unknown lines that if crossed require specific approvals? Getting to the bottom of this question is critical because knowing what levels of empowerment you have, what resources you have access to, and what requires approval will help you focus your efforts on the things that matter.
Does the answer to this question necessarily mean dealing with a negative response? In a word, no. It might just result in learning that you have more freedom to make a decision than you expected, but that there are a few caveats. Whatever those caveats may be, it’s important to know that they exist before you find yourself far along an ill-advised path.
It may feel odd, dare I say uncomfortable to do so at first, especially if you haven’t sought out clarification in this manner on a regular basis in the past. With time, however, asking key questions will come naturally and you will benefit from having the right information to work with from the start.
What about you? What questions have you asked to gain clarification on special projects? How did they help?