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Getting the right project information

David Jago
December 22, 2011

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you have always gotten! That’s why really new outcomes need new thinking. In turn, this thinking is based on expanded information and awareness.

One way to think of a workshop or conversation is as a form of information processing. In this context, you have to start with the end in mind, that is, the outcome that you need; for example scope definition, stakeholder analysis or communication plan.  Therefore, what information, processed in what way, will deliver that outcome?

Let’s take these in reverse order (see right). Your preparation so far has led to a defined outcome. Within that outcome what in practical terms, do you need to document as your tangible product or output? What new information do you need as a starting point towards that documented output?

The processing is indicated by the thinking needed to generate the output. What will you do to enable the comprehensive coverage of… or the objective analysis of… to come about?

So, how do you get the information you need? Ask the right question. So, what question, asked in what way, will elicit that information? Here are some things to consider:

  • You get the data you ask for. This means asking your question precisely. You can think of it as wordsmithing in reverse.  Consider these two approaches: ‘…factors involved in XYZ’ and ‘…forces driving XYZ’. What different responses will they elicit from a group?
  • Garbage in, garbage out. An oldie but a goodie. No amount of high falutin’ processing is going to fix up crap data.
  • You’ll need a backup. Sometimes, even with good preparation, you won’t ask quite the right question. What’s your Plan B, C…?
  • Ask open-ended questions. This means starting your question with ‘what’ or ‘how’ (how much/many/long) or ‘why’ or ‘who’. It means avoiding questions that can be answered with yes or no.
  • One question at a time please. Double-barrelled questions are just plain confusing and only generate poor quality information.  For example, split ‘what did you do and why’ into two questions. That way, all the objective info on the actions can be fitted together. Then, all the rationales for, and values driving, those actions can be put together. It’s okay to stimulate divergence with some well-considered aspects of the one question. SWOT is a good example of this.

Finally, bear in mind that 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? Please, share your thoughts below.

The world we have made as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far creates problems we cannot solve at the same level of thinking at which we created them—Albert Einstein

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.
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