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Do You Really Want To Know the Status of a Project? If Yes, Ask Essential Questions!
By Harold Strawbridge

Monitoring projects in your business is like answering the question, “Are we there yet?” When answering a kid on a car trip, you can get away with, “We’ll be there soon!” or “We’re almost there.” A descriptive answer will get you by (and if the answer doesn’t work, you can always growl, “Don’t make me come back there!”)

The project management equivalent to “Are we there yet?” is “How’s the project going?” That question should be answered with a definitive answer better than, “Great!” or “We’re makin’ progress.” To get definitive answers you have to as questions that can be only answered definitively. Enter the Essential Questions.

Here’s some examples of Essential Questions that leaders need to ask to get project status.

  • What are the barriers to meeting the next project milestone?
  • What issues do we have regarding materials or people, or process, or technology?

  • What issues have we discovered through “testing”? Testing could be any quality assurance activity such as physical testing, software testing, simulations, process walkthroughs, copy editing, market testing.

  • What have we discovered about doing this project that we should keep doing?

  • What have we discovered that we have to stop doing?

  • What criteria have we established to measure our progress?

Asking Essential Questions will get information about things that require action from this point forward in the project. Once an Essential Question reveals something, the natural follow up is, “So what are we going to do about it?” which begets, “Who’s going to do that and when will it be done?” Now you’re about the job of making actionable future steps visible. Once they are visible, it’s easier to clarify expectations about them and easier to for the project team to make milestones.

Asking Essential Questions will avoid the mind numbing litany of accomplished tasks that masquerade as project monitoring. Listing all the things that are done doesn’t provide you, as a leader, with where we really are in the project. A focus on successfully completed tasks is great for recognition of staff but for progress status, it is a backward view. It’s like driving a car while looking only in the rear-view mirror. Steve McQueen tells a joke in the Magnificent Seven about a person who’s falling off a building. As he flies by a window, someone yells, “How ya’ doin’?” The response is “So far, so good!” That’s a descriptive status from this project moment back. Again, it’s fine to look back when your aim is to reward progress and recognize accomplishments—but you must look forward to assess and monitor where you are and where you need to be. At any given point in time, a project will succeed based only on what you do with the time remaining.

A word of warning, the first time you direct your Essential Questions to colleagues, they may respond with long pauses and evasive glances. It may be uncomfortable. So the first time out, you may want to give them some time and come back later. Once you establish a pattern of asking the questions, they’ll establish a pattern of being ready to answer them.

Harold Strawbridge is co-founder of Team Toolbox. Team Toolbox is a place where a group of experienced folks will provide you with bite-sized bits of knowledge that can be applied to common situations that you often face.

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