Confronting the brutal facts

project success is more likely if we start with some tough questions

Introduction

In his 2001 book Good to Great, Jim Collins (Collins, 2001) highlights the characteristics of eleven companies he judged great. By Collins' criteria they had each made a transition from good to great and then sustained that standing for fifteen years. One of the differentiating characteristics shared by all of these companies was the ability to ask and answer tough questions. When Collins compared the great companies to less successful organizations, he saw that these other companies found a nearly infinite variety of means to avoid dealing with harsh realities. As the book put it, each successful firm had the ability to “confront the brutal facts.”

“Confronting the brutal facts” is also one of the characteristics of great projects. I have found that Collins' discovery applies equally to great projects. Great projects build an early capacity for question-management. Effective approaches to questions assist the project team in putting their efforts into problem solving, not problem dodging.

This paper explores:

  • Ways in which good questions can assist the project team.
  • Obstacles that exist to the adoption of an effective question-management culture.
  • Some suggestions for improvement of our question-management process.
  • Sample questions that might be answered about most projects to increase the probability of project success.

How Good Questions Assist the Project Team

Effective use of questions can help the project management team in several ways. Specifically, asking questions and struggling with the answers assist the project by:

  • Establishing clarity about the project, its objectives, goals, and possibilities.
  • Identifying conditions that could adversely impact the project, and assisting in preparing counter measures.
  • Evaluating performance against those objectives, and through effective feedback prompting corrective action.

At the end of the paper (Appendix 1) is a list of sample questions that could be asked about virtually any project. In many cases the same questions could be asked at several stages of project development. In such cases, the changing answers would point to the refinement of the project. These sample questions focus on four areas of project concern:

  • The intended project results. What Jim Collins calls the Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) of the project. (Collins, 1994, p. 9).
  • The definition of scope necessary to achieve the results.
  • The performance objectives for the scope necessary to achieve the results.
  • The environment in which the project is being performed.

Each of these areas can have critical impact on projects. As is typical of all project environments, a huge number of things must go right to make a great project. Conversely, only one thing going poorly can derail project greatness. The way in which questions are asked and answered has major impact on things going right.

With the emphasis on anticipating problems, the question arises: Is asking questions different than risk management? It is appropriate to note that risk management can only be as effective as the questions asked and the quality of the answers given. Still, while the act of asking questions is a critical part of risk management, an effective question-management culture is part of every project process, not just risk management.

Project Obstacles in Dealing with Questions

Even if project managers apply skill in dealing with their questions and obtaining answers, there are still obstacles to an effective question-management culture.

Even skilled project managers may find that:

  • Questions that need to be addressed are not being asked.
  • Questions that are asked, or the answers given, may not be heard.
  • Questions asked, and heard, may not result in action being taken.

Questions not asked

The issue of comfort in asking questions is a social phenomenon. The reasons for questioner-reluctance are generally cultural. The applicable culture may be unique to the project, but it is more frequently associated with the past experience of the project participants. A number of reasons are common for this reluctance. For instance:

  • The questioner may fear the consequences of asking the question.
  • The questioner may not want to deal with the expected answer.

Feared Consequences

The feared consequences of asking the question might be in a perceived past history, as in the warning, “Remember what happened to Charlie when he asked that kind of question.” What happened to Charlie might or might not have had a connection to the questions he asked. However, if the perception exists that there was a connection between Charlie's questions and what happened next, it is a powerful force constraining questions.

The fear might be of social ostracism or as being perceived as less than a team player. Recently I observed a project team's endorsement of a very labor intensive planning and tracking system. The company's manager of project controls expressed private skepticism that this system could be sustained at the peak intensity on the project. Yet he refused to ask the project team whether this had been considered by them. His reluctance appeared to grow from a fear that he would be perceived as being against their innovation. He wanted to support their effort, but felt he could not ask if they were headed for a train wreck without alienating himself from the project team.

Another widely shared fear comes from the perception that even asking a question may bring the feared consequence. (Finlayson, 2001 p. 28) If problems bring failure and problems are associated with questions, then questions must cause failure. This unspoken perception can not be shaken until acknowledged and seeking acknowledgment is often painful, so questions do not get asked.

Reluctance to Deal with an Expected Answer

In many cases listeners believe that the answer to their question is embedded in another answer, already given. The perception that an answer was given (even if not fully understood) stops the process of seeking clarification. The perception may be without basis or may be associated with an answer given to what the giver thought was a totally different question.

On several occasions I have attended seminars by the quality and systems guru Dr. Russell Ackoff. Dr Ackoff is clearly a brilliant man, with an intimidating manner of dealing with questions. On one occasion, a fellow attendee asked me to confirm that Dr. Ackoff's comments supported a particular conclusion. I said that I didn't think that was what was intended at all, for that conclusion seemed inconsistent with others things he had said. Still, I acknowledged that it was not an unreasonable interpretation based on what we had both heard.

My colleague refused to ask a clarifying question on the grounds that he had heard the answer and had already enjoyed ample opportunity to observe the handling of people asking “dumb” questions. Eventually, a clarification was sought, and Dr. Ackoff restated his conclusion in a totally understandable, consistent manner. The conclusion now presented was very different than what my friend had inferred. I left the seminar wondering if the clarifying question had not been asked, how many attendees would have left with an absolutely incorrect interpretation of the speaker's intent.

The presumption exists that if a directive is given, that at some level it needs to be complied with. If the listener can avoid having the directive given, then assumably he can be excused for operating in ignorance of the instruction not stated. On one occasion I watched a construction superintendent question a safety supervisor about a specific confined space situation. The answer that was given was not credible, and further it directed the superintendent to take action that was not in his power to take. At the conclusion of the answer the twenty-some superintendents in the room visibly signaled each other and all questions stopped. Unable to deal with the answer to one question, they did not want to receive any more such answers. Interestingly, the safety supervisor was satisfied that he had enunciated a clear, workable, policy position.

Questions, and Answers, not Heard

When questions are asked, the process can still derail. The questioner may feel that his question was not really heard or that the answer given was to a different question. The person asked a question may feel that his answer was not heard. In such cases dialogue is unlikely to continue in the future, since the first questions were not dealt with satisfactorily.

I have identified four common reasons that often result in questions, or answers, not being heard.

  • The filters of our experience through which we hear questions and answers.
  • The pride of ownership on the questioner's part.
  • The lack of an organizational ability to deal with the issues the question raises.
  • Putting the questions to the wrong people.

The Filters of our Experience

Steven Covey says that all advice is autobiographical (Covey, 1989 p. 245). The same can be said of the filters through which we process questions.

In 1968 Alan Kay, whose later work at PARC greatly influenced GUI systems, was asked about the future of computing. He predicted a day when what we now call handheld computers would be common. He further predicted that in that day such devices might even contain hard drives (as do some Ipods). His audience was a group of graduate students in computer science who were acknowledged as on the leading edge of new technologies. They hooted at this answer. It was so far from their experience that they could not process the answer. (Waldrop 2001 p. 282)

Pride of ownership

During a paper mill expansion project, the owner's project manager had come across a skeletal design for a very paper intensive system for tracking the delivery of equipment and instrumentation. He showed me this system and asked my opinion. Without realizing I was stepping into a mine field, I told him what I thought: that we could achieve the objective of this system in a computer database much more effectively and probably less expensively. This was not the answer he wanted. He clarified his question. “This is what we are going to do, can you make it work?”

To which I answered, “I'm not sure I can make it work, but if this is what you want done, I will do everything in my power to make it work.” A few months later, after seeing the costs of operating this increasingly ineffective system, the PM asked me if we could still recover and implement a computer based solution. We did.

In a plant maintenance situation, the plant procurement manager found a contractor with access to a less skilled workforce than ours who quoted hourly rates about 15% less than our established rates. He gave us the opportunity to meet the rates, which we could not do. Questions about relative skill fell on deaf ears. He hired the other contractor. Through the next year we received feedback on many instances where maintenance workorders required about twice as many man-hours as our most recent performance of the same or similar work. At the end of the year the procurement manager was especially proud of his cost savings because “as the maintenance man-hour total doubled we have achieved twice the anticipated savings.”

Organizational inability

Some years ago I proposed a boiler economizer replacement method that required hanging the new economizer cantilevered on the outside of the boiler from an overhead trolley beam. The chief structural engineer for the owner's engineering company essentially told me that this was a stupid idea. His basis: “It is impossible, it would take a plate girder 7' deep to support that load in that position.” To which I replied, “I think there are other means, but a 7' deep beam is not impossible. If it takes a bridge girder I will get a bridge girder. The method will save considerable time and, in this case, time in much more important than a few dollars worth of steel.” Not just this engineer, but his organizations were totally unable to process a proposal that went beyond the conventional wisdom that guided their decisions.

Such cases are not uncommon. Organizations build competence based on their experience. Then, when they are confronted by ideas outside their experience, the organizations are often unable to process the ideas. Projects often take too long and cost too much because the organizations involved are not able to process innovative methods.

In the example case, we replaced the economizer in 11 days of boiler downtime while the engineering firm predicted 63. In another case we replaced two large refinery heaters in 42 days of unit downtime, when that engineering firm had predicted 180 days. The people in these organizations were not stupid, but their organizations were unable to challenge self-imposed limits. Effectively, certain questions could not heard by the organizations.

Asking Questions of the Wrong People

I have often said that I will not take a “no” answer from someone who does not have the power to say “yes.” This has resulted in many instances of an apparent path to a negative decision being reversed by someone able to see a bigger picture. Often I have observed questions in a project being effectively ignored because they were addressed to the wrong people. In many project situations I have observed serious problems arising that were anticipated by members of the project team who did not make their concerns known at the level where corrective action could be initiated. Being able to say “I told you so” was small consolation for an element of project failure.

Questions Asked, and Answers Received, but no Action is Taken

Jim Collins contrasts the case of A&P with that of Kroger when faced with the challenge of building modern supermarkets. Both companies undertook pilot programs to build new model stores and observe the customer's reaction. Both found their new stores highly successful. Still, the act of building large numbers of such stores was seen by both organizations as an abandonment of their past ways of doing business. Kroger did not see that as an insurmountable obstacle and moved on to become a successful nationwide grocery retailer. A&P looked to the deceased Chairman, John Hartford, staring down from his portrait on the boardroom wall, for an answer he was unable to give and refused to address the issue. (Collins, 2001 p. 67) A&P was not organizationally capable of taking action based on the questions they had asked and the answers they had received.

Raising Your IQQ

An effective question-management culture is about the questions we ask and the way in which we ask them. Andrew Finlayson refers to this as your Intelligence Questioning Quotient (IQQ) (Finlayson, 2001, p. 53). Poor questioning practice can expend near infinite energy and never get to the root of issues. Poorly phrased questions can be seen as an attack and lead to destructive behaviors. Raising your IQQ is primarily based on individual effort encouraged by a supportive team.

Finlayson (Finlayson, 2001, p. 59) suggests three questions as a format to begin a sincere inquiry:

  1. Is this a good time to talk?
  2. Can you help me?
  3. What is your opinion?

Practice in applying this format to introduce your inquiry is a beneficial way to increase your IQQ.

To assure effectiveness, questions should be:

  • Open ended,
  • Positive,
  • Future focused,
  • Not prejudging, and
  • Aimed at getting to the root of a problem

Being open ended simply means that a good question should not be capable of being answered with a simple yes or no. Too often binary (yes/no) questions lead to the behavior of giving an answer based on a perception of what the questioner wants to hear. In some cases this is obvious, as in the question “Then I take it we are all in agreement that ….<fill in the blank>……?”

As an example of this phenomenon, I watched the president and services vice president of a construction company attempting to deal with the results of the president's question: “We get the best prices on all the material we buy, ..right?” In this case, the president was clearly attempting to deflect the issue as a non-issue while the vice president felt it could not be answered that simply. Both were uncomfortable with the consequence of a poorly designed question. The issue was quickly tabled for future study. Interestingly, to the limit of my knowledge, the issue was never raised again.

Positive means that the expression of effective questions should focus on clarity and positive outcomes. We should emphasize obtaining improved outcomes, not avoiding negative outcomes. Consider the statement about a past problem: “I don't ever want to see this occur again.” While superficially positive, the statement leaves unclear whether the intent is that the system should be improved so the problem is eliminated, or whether it means that a prudent manager should be more effective in hiding the failings of the current system.

Future focused means that the best questions accept the current situation for what it is and focus on how to improve the future. There is an appropriate place for investigating the roots of failure, but there is rarely a purpose to be solved by seeking to assign blame. If the fault is in the system (where it usually is), then designating a team member to take the fall is counter productive.

Not prejudging is achieved by divorcing the value judgments about the players from the answer to the question. If we suggest that only an idiot would have allowed a problem to happen, and then ask the perpetrators to identify themselves, what kind of response are we expecting?

In another of Dr. Ackoff's seminars a young woman asked me to clarify a statement he had made. My comment was that she had a very good question and should ask it of Dr. Ackoff. Her answer was, “There is no way that I am going to ask that man anything.” Unfortunately, this answer was driven by observed responses to past questions. We can expect the same thing in our projects if we develop a reputation for judgmental questions or response.

Questions should be aimed at getting to the root of the issue. Usually the first question about an issue will not get to the underlying cause. The quality tool “5 Whys” (Senge, 1994, p.108) suggests a burrowing set of questions to a depth of five is often necessary to get to the root cause. Any questioning strategy that is based on assuming the first answer is definitive is likely to waste time chasing trivialities.

Strategies for Building an Effective Question-management Project Culture

Project managers who want to increase their chances of having great projects can undertake a number of measures to improve their question-management process.

They can:

  • Develop questioning skill, the IQQ mentioned above.
  • Encourage appropriate listening behaviors.
  • Discourage putdowns of those who ask questions.
  • Provide encouragement of questions and prompt positive recognition of questioners.
  • Designate team members with a specific responsibility to question decisions.

Listening

Listening behaviors can be taught, practiced, and coached. The most effective single thing that can be done by project management to encourage effective listening is to model the behavior themselves. The second most effective thing they can do is to coach those on their team who violate norms of good listening behaviors. Projects accumulate bad habits through the people they acquire. To have a positive project culture requires intentional action.

Putdowns

Coaching of listening behaviors also reflects on stopping putdowns. Gentle humor among groups that know each other well from long periods of working together can be tolerated. The same humor used with people who are thrown together for a project can be destructive. The project management team should endorse behavior norms that include not allowing offensive behavior directed at those who ask questions or raise issues.

As a junior engineer on a highway construction project I was given the assignment to examine a quality issue and report back to the entire project team in one week. In examining 5 pieces of heavy equipment I found that more than 50% of the fuse holders on the dash of this equipment contained improperly sized fuses. This discovery helped explain why our night shift crews had been complaining about broken lighting systems. When I reported this at the next team meeting my report was treated with derision. Guess how many more times I questioned the established order on that project?

Acknowledgment

Psychologists tell us that one of the most negative things we can do in a group interaction is to allow shunning, sometimes called extinction. This happens when those who are questioning the wisdom of the group are not applauded, or rejected, they are just ignored. As project managers we need to ensure that those on our project team who ask questions are acknowledged and encouraged, even if the questions seem to be a distraction. If necessary, team members can be coached on more effective questioning techniques, but they should never be ignored.

Designated Questioners

After the Bay of Pigs incident in 1961, John F. Kennedy felt that his management team had performed badly. According to his analysis, they had fallen into what has come to be called group-think. Wishing not to make this mistake a second time, he instituted some changes in crisis organization. Approximately eighteen months later, when faced with the missile crisis in Cuba, he applied a changed structure to dealing with the issues. Methods employed included:

  • Absenting himself from some meetings to avoid intimidating others.
  • Refusing to state an opinion until others had spoken.
  • Designating others to act as devil's advocate in questioning the group's conclusions and actions.

By encouraging questions that might not have been popular, President Kennedy was able to avoid a repetition of group-think. The result was much better handling of the crisis. (Kennedy, 1969, p. 111)

Conclusion

Improvements in project performance can be expected when project teams adopt effective principals of question-management. Specific skills can be taught and coached to project leaders that can pay dividends as they “Confront the Brutal Facts.”

References

Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great. New York, NY: Harper Business

Collins, J & Porras, J. (1994). Built to Last. New York, NY: Harper Business

Covey, S. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster

Finlayson, A. (2001). Questions that Work. New York, NY: AMACOM

Kennedy, R. (1969). Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, New York, NY: Norton

Senge, P., Ross, R., Smithy, B., Roberts C., & Kleiner, A. (1994) The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. New York, NY: Doubleday

Waldrop, M. (2001). The Dream Machine. New York, NY: Viking

Appendix A: Sample Questions Dealing With The Project and its Performance Environment

Project Results:

What will be different when this project is complete?

How will the impact of the project on that future be measured?

What are the inherent risks in our view of this future?

What is the driving force of the project?

Has the project's driving force been effectively communicated to all stakeholders?

Project Scope:

Have the scope requirements been fully explored?

Does the definition of scope encompass significant risk?

Are there significant technology risks in the project definition?

Are the technology risk areas within the control of the project team?

How will ongoing technology risk be evaluated?

How will changes in the scope be monitored?

Project Performance Objectives:

Budget

How was the budget established?

Does the budget truly cover the scope with realistic allowances for known and unknown conditions and contingencies?

How would a significant cost overrun impact the project's viability?

Can the project's cost be reduced by deferring any portions of the project or by simplifying the scope?

Could the project be significantly improved through expenditure of additional funds?

If the project scope could be achieved for less than the current budget, might such funds be available for other enhancements?

How will conformance to the budgets be monitored?

Schedule:

What is the intended/expected/desired date for project completion?

What forces determined the establishment of that date?

Has a realistic schedule been prepared showing the logical relationship and timing of major activities?

If a significant deviation in schedule occurs, what is the potential impact on the viability of the project?

What opportunities are embedded in a schedule reduction?

How might a significant reduction in the schedule be achieved?

How will conformance to schedule be monitored?

Quality

Are the quality measures for the project clear?

Are the required levels of quality performance practical, given the project constraints?

What can be done to establish the ability to reach the quality required?

Is the quality management structure capable of achieving quality performance without imposing unsustainable burdens?

Performance Environment

Stakeholders

What stakeholders are there in the project whose presence might not be felt in project meetings? (Regulators, public officials, others in the sponsoring company, etc.)

How might these stakeholders impact successful performance?

How can these auxiliary stakeholders be brought into the program?

Decision Processes

Are the decision processes of the project clearly defined?

Is timeliness assured in the making of decisions?

How will proposed changes be weighed and incorporated?

Resources:

Have the resource requirements for the project been realistically appraised?

Are the right resources available in the numbers needed to achieve the project goals?

Is the project effort sustainable with the resources identified?

Is an unacceptable human cost a likely result of performing the project at the resource levels planned?

Coordination of Project Effort with Others

Are there significant interfaces with others on which the project's successful outcome depends?

Are the interface issues within the span of control of the project team?

Are the interface issues being openly discussed and managed?

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2005, John L. Homer
Originally published as part of 2005 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Toronto, Canada

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