How Asking Questions Benefits Projects

The smart project manager knows to ask when they don't know

Project managers are expected to know a lot about their projects. Some take it to a whole new level and expect project managers to have the answer to everything about their projects. Not only is this impossible, it’s impractical. If you are a project manager that feels you can never ask someone else a question, then this article is for you. Read on to understand why people may be hesitant to ask questions and to learn some of the benefits of admitting you don’t know it all.

Yes, it’s true. Project managers don’t have all the answers. Some may find that hard to believe. After all, isn’t it a project manager’s job to know all the details about their projects? It may be true to a certain extent, but the following story shows how project managers must lead through uncharted territory at times. The larger point that I don’t want you to miss is that we should all feel comfortable enough to stop and ask questions when we don’t understand.

Steve was hired to run the newly formed PMO of our rapidly growing company.  We had a number of project managers on staff with multiple projects occurring, and management thought it made sense to create one group, headed up by one person who would organize and have oversight of all projects. Steve started on a Monday and by Tuesday sent out an email requesting information from all of the project managers in the company.

An introductory email from the new boss is not unusual. However, there was a problem with Steve’s email: it was practically cryptic. He used words to describe project-related information that we were not yet familiar with. In truth, nobody had a clue about half of what Steve was requesting. Sure, there were standard questions about how many projects each PM was managing, a discussion around clients, and other information common to project teams.

There were also requests for information that we had never been asked to provide before. Steve wanted certain supporting documentation, particular ratios, and other types of information that sounded like leftover lingo acquired at his former company. He wrapped up his email with a pithy comment about how he was sure all this information was readily available, but he would give everyone a week to pull it together.

Everyone started freaking out…

…including me. We had no idea what Steve really wanted. We had our project plans, risk analysis software matrices, resource schedules, and other project paraphernalia to show him. However, we were flying blind on the other 50%.

The pressure got to some project managers, who began to question Steve’s motives. It was suggested that he wanted to set us all up to look bad in front of management so he could bring in his own team. They felt it might be the beginning of the end.

I felt that pressure as well, but took a different tack. I realized I didn’t know everything, and that there shouldn’t be any harm in asking a couple of questions. I called Steve one morning and officially introduced myself. I let him know I looked forward to working with him, but had just a couple of questions about his requests.

“Oh, those?” he said. “Yeah, I could see how that would be a bit confusing if you’re not used to providing that information. What I really need is…” and then he went on to describe his request. Once he explained it, I knew that the information wasn’t going to be that hard to pull together. He ended the conversation with, “Do the best you can do. I know you may not have everything at your disposal and that’s OK. We’ll fill in the blanks over the upcoming weeks.” Whew…what a relief! I was so glad I called and asked that question. The little bit of insight he gave just made my job that much easier.

There are probably people on our project teams that are just as hesitant to ask questions. They may sit at a meeting with a knot in their stomach because they don’t clearly understand the task at hand. They choose to silently suffer rather than take a moment and ask for clarification.

Why People May Not Ask Questions

You may wonder why people are reluctant to ask questions when the ease of mind an answer can provide is so obvious. The following are a number of reasons why this may be the case:

  • They Don’t Want to Look Ignorant – The assumption is that someone in a professional position (such as a project manager) has answers for everything; some even presume managers to be experts in their domain. Therefore, to ask questions is to admit that you don’t have complete understanding. Vanity causes people to be concerned about how they will look to others around them. This is especially apparent during meetings, when someone explains something new and asks if there are any questions. Everyone sits in silence rather than risk posing a question that may sound dumb.
  • They Don’t Know It’s OK to Ask a Question – Some feel it’s not acceptable to question the direction that comes down from above. Company culture may discourage it or perhaps even view it as disrespectful. If that’s the case, the company has bigger issues than questions going unspoken.
  • They Don’t Know They SHOULD Ask Questions – There’s a lot of truth in the expression, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Sometimes people are not aware they should ask questions in a certain situation, such as the one my colleagues found themselves in with Steve. Maybe a person is so new to the organization it does not occur to them that the directions they are being given could be wrong. We often forget that managers make mistakes too.

When project managers are stifled from speaking up because of vanity, ignorance or culture, they may not be performing at their optimal level.

Why Asking Questions is Beneficial

If you feel your team is succumbing to silence for the wrong reasons, help them appreciate and understand the associated benefits of asking for direction:

  • It Makes You Smarter – Asking question after questionasking questions makes a smarter project manager and getting answer after answer can’t help but make you smarter. You acquire greater intelligence about your projects, related processes, people, organizational politics, and the company in general. Your skill at putting the pieces of the puzzle together and seeing how things relate to each other is sharpened. You establish a rock solid foundation of knowledge to build upon for subsequent projects, not to mention increase your capacity as a professional.
  • It’s a HUGE Timesaver – Think about how much time is wasted when a lost driver refuses to pull off the road at a gas station and ask for directions. They will drive for LONG distances before admitting that they are actually clueless, even though they and everyone in the car knew they were lost about ten exits back!  Don’t drive your team blindly down the road. Save everyone time and aggravation by pulling off at the first exit to ask your project sponsor or manager for directions. They’ll be glad to help you out.
  • It May Uncover Flaws – Another benefit of questioning something you don’t understand is that it may uncover flawed thinking. Nobody is perfect in any company, and bad direction may be provided by someone. If that direction just doesn’t make sense to you, your questions may uncover some of those discrepancies and help everyone reconnect the dots.
  • It Shows Initiative and Concern On Your Part – Asking questions means that you don’t take things at face value. Steve, the new PMO Director I referred to earlier, realized that about me and expressed his appreciation for the fact that I stopped to ask him to clarify. It shows that you want what’s best for your team and the company and won’t hesitate to ask appropriate questions if something is unclear.

Help your team understand that the worst type of question is the one that is never asked. Encourage an inquisitive spirit and reciprocate by providing thoughtful and non-rushed answers. Doing so will help everyone realize that you put your money where your mouth is and that you’re serious about what you say.

Steve and I went on to work together for many years after our initial conversation. We grew to be close friends, and enjoyed working on some pretty exciting projects. Who knows what the outcome of our relationship would have been had I not asked him one simple question about the meaning of his email. It very well could have taken a different turn.

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