AXELOS ProPath, the world's most powerful project, programme and portfolio best practice certifications

Questions from a project manager

David Jago
April 11, 2012

Why would facilitative project managers be interested in the difficult art of questioning?

Well, if you are in the happy position of knowing everything there is to know about your project, then you can skip to another article. Conversely, you may be relying on:

  • Stakeholders for their perspective on project outputs, outcomes or benefits.
  • Subject matter experts for their professional input.
  • Team members for real, current project status information.

If this is you, then you have to find out what’s going on and how it fits together. How you do that has a critical impact on the quality of what you can achieve.

Robust outcomes demand robust thinking. This starts with sufficiently expanded information and awareness. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten!

That’s why the quality of your questions is so important. After all: garbage in, garbage out. An oldie but a goodie. If you start with crap data, it can only go downhill from there.

So, what questions, asked in what way, will elicit that new information? Here are some things to consider:

1. Pose open-ended questions

  • Do not use questions that can be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
  • Questions that start with ‘what’, ‘how’, or ‘why’ tend to get more complete responses.
  • It’s about opening out the space and expanding the information available to everyone.

2. Allow time to respond

  • When The Chaser team fires off 10 quick questions at an unsuspecting celebrity it makes for good comedy, not good answers.
  • People do need time to respond.
  • One question at at time, please. Double-barrelled questions are just plain confusing and only generate poor quality information.

3. Allow for enough context

  • A small amount of background is often good.
  • Too much is just confusing and can make folks defensive. It’s pretty silly if your question is lost in all the verbiage.
  • Also, don’t anticipate the response.

4. Set the objective of the question

  • The intent behind your question counts for a lot.
  • You are not a barrister grilling a ‘hostile’ witness or a current affairs reporter harassing a subject into making a mistake. You are there to enable those present to build a shared understanding.
  • This requires a “yes, and also…” approach.

5. Be precise

  • You get the data you ask for. This means asking precise questions.
  • You can think of it as wordsmithing in reverse.
  • Consider these two approaches asking after “…factors involved in XYZ” or “…forces driving XYZ”. What different responses will they elicit from the group?

6. Include a plan

  • Proper planning prevents poor performance.
  • You always need a backup. Sometimes, even with good preparation, you won’t ask quite the right question.
  • What’s your Plan B, C… question?

7. Alternatives to questions

It’s not always a question. In some cultures, questions are not appropriate. It’s a matter of subtle additions and responses to the conversation that guide it in the required direction.

So, what’s your experience of crafting precise questions to get the information required to expand a group’s thinking?

* Thanks to Chip Scanlan, who provided the initial spark for this post.

David Jago
David Jago has more than 30 years experience in enabling effective participation and collaboration in the public, private and community sectors. He has worked in both urban and rural contexts, across Australia, East Timor and India. He uses the Technology of Participation™ (ToP) as the engine for his work as a certified ToP facilitator, an authorised ToP trainer and a qualified ToP assessor. His business, Smart Meetings, has been going since 2004.
Read more