Are you asking the right questions?

Over the years (or perhaps I should say decades), I have read numerous articles on what questions are important when starting out on a project. Everyone asks the same three questions:

  • What’s my budget?
  • How much time do I have to get the job done?
  • What am I supposed to do?

Asking these questions the day you are appointed as a project manager has no meaning. Somebody who resides on the top floor of the building and sits behind a mahogany desk may have picked a budget and schedule out of the air and want to see if they can force you to do the impossible. Their response is often followed up with the comment, “This is all the money we have available and we promised the stakeholders that this would be done by this date.”

In reality, the budget and schedule they stated is probably aligned with the size of their year-end bonus, as opposed to what is practical. And to make matter worse, unless you have a command of technology and are an expert in the field, you have no clue as to whether or not the budget and schedule have merit.

Realistic budgets and schedules come from pricing out a plan. Without a plan, you have no way of knowing what is possible. Most projects today seem to be more complex than their predecessors and therefore require several subject matter experts to be available during the initial phases of the project.

Having said all of this, then what questions should be asked? My belief is that the project manager needs to know what the “boundary conditions” are surrounding the project. In this regard, you can still ask about the target budget and schedule, but I would also ask:

  • What are the expected deliverables and what business value does the company expect to get out of this project?
  • If the project plan shows that we cannot attain this business value within the established budget and schedule, then what tradeoffs should be done first; the budget, the schedule, or the expected deliverables?
  • What assistance will I get when staffing the project with the required subject matter experts?

The answers to these questions will give you a reasonable picture of the boundary conditions for the project. The original budget and schedule that were established are just points, somewhere within the boundary conditions. Very few projects are ever completed within the original constraints. We take for granted the constraints and assumptions we are given without ever questioning them. Then, when we discover that they are not correct, we may be so far into the project that failure may be the only option.

If the executives refuse to answer these questions, then you know immediately how much trouble you are in. At this point, you should be prepared to ask one more question:

  • What am I assigned as the project leader?

If the answer to this question does not please you, then perhaps it is time to update your resume!.

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3 thoughts on “Are you asking the right questions?

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