Effective project management is all about doing things right:
- First, someone decides that something has to be done.
- Then, someone else assembles a team and designs an effective project execution plan.
- After that, the team members do their best to execute the project.
- Lastly, someone evaluates whether the project solved the problem it was meant to solve.
Project management is one of the most widespread problem solving strategies in organizations. Yet, projects often start without a deep understanding of the problems the organization is facing. As a result, when the project is evaluated the question whether it solved the problem it was meant to solve is missing.
During my many years of being a consultant I have met a lot of executives and project leads who don’t want to initiate large organizational change projects without knowing that they will actually have an impact on the way things are done in the organization. But – as they openly admit – they don’t know how to get that insight. They have neither the project management methodologies nor the tools to help them identify which problems are the most important to solve.
It actually makes a lot of sense. As long as project management is all about doing things right, it will have a hard time answering questions that are all about doing the right things. Or to put it differently: To fix project management we need a project methodology that makes room for all the questions that are left out in traditional project management methodologies.
Why don’t we ask why?
For almost a decade organizational consultant Simon Sinek has been encouraging leaders all over the world to Start with Why when they want to motivate and move their organizations forward. According to Sinek almost every leader – and employee for that matter – knows What they are doing and How they are doing it. But almost no one knows Why.
That’s critical, because, as he writes on his website:
Your why is your purpose, cause or belief that inspires you to do what you do. When you think, act and communicate starting with Why, you can inspire others.
My own studies, conducted across 50 different Danish companies, confirm that less than 10 % of the questions employees ask each other are Why-questions. More than 60 % are What- and How-questions (the typical project management questions).
But why is that?
The researchers Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John recently published an article in Harvard Business Review titled The Surprising Power of Questions. And questions are indeed powerful. It makes a world of difference to ask “Why should I do this project?” instead of “How should I do this project?” And the answers take the inquirer in completely different directions.
So why do we settle with What and How when there are so many experiences, ideas, potential, fears and dreams waiting to be unleashed in Why, Who, When and Where?
The jedi mind trick: Stop asking questions
Once again, it actually makes a lot of sense. In traditional project management methodologies it’s only a few people who ask questions. The decision maker asks What should be done, and then he and his peers come up with a decision.
Then the project lead asks How it should be done, and he and his team come up with a plan. Sometimes the decision maker asks the project lead to do some research, and then the project lead conducts a survey or some interviews asking the project stakeholders What they think should be done and How.
When only a few people ask questions, only a few kinds of questions are asked – and only a few problems are recognized and solved. That’s why I would like to add a trick to the list of Counterintuitive tricks to asking better questions that Quartz made based on Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John’s HBR article. And that is to stop asking questions until you know which questions your project stakeholders ask themselves and each other.
By mobilizing and mapping the questions your project stakeholders ask each other you will not only get access to what they know, you will also get unique insight into what they don’t know, what they want to know, and who they turn to hoping to get that knowledge.
That’s exactly the insight you need to decide, design and execute projects based on the problems facing your organization. And that’s the only way to have an impact on the way things are actually done in the organization.
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