Managing Discussions When You Do Not Have the Answers

Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.   – Winston Churchill

Have you every found yourself under attack at work? I have!

Well, not exactly. But to an outsider, it might have looked that way.

I was facilitating a meeting about a topic that I did not yet know much about. The purpose of the meeting – as set out in the agenda – was to share high-level information about a new project, confirm understanding of the project intent, align to a draft project plan, and gather outstanding questions for our project sponsors.

My manager gave me the project charter a few days beforehand, and I noticed the projected delivery date was only three months away. While this project was not very complex, three months did not seem like enough time given all of the steps, approvals, and potential translations involved. So I drafted a quick project plan based on the limited knowledge I had to show that if we do it right, we will need at least four months – if not more!

My plan was to review the timeline and milestones with the team so they could add steps I may have missed (since they collectively have more knowledge than I do about what it takes to deliver what was requested) and also to validate my assumptions. Since the project was on a smaller scale, I did not think a full project planning session was necessary.

So, back to the meeting…

Unfortunately, at the last minute, my manager – who had the most information of all of us about the project – was unable to attend due to a conflict. But since everyone was literally gathered in the room, we decided to proceed. And as I was reviewing the project charter, I was hardly able to get past the first few sentences before the rapid-fire questions starting coming.

  Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Why are we doing this project? Don’t we have about three other projects that are each tackling part of this work? How are these deliverables different? Who has asked for this information? Do we really need it in three months – that seems impossible?! And most importantly, is it even really a priority?

And how many answers did I have to these questions? NONE!

While what I wanted to do was curl up in a little ball in the corner, I faced this interrogation head on.

I explained that I do not have any of the answers (oh, how I hated having to say that!) and took very detailed notes of the team’s questions and concerns. I also let them know that I shared their concerns, and pointed out that the timeline I drafted extended well beyond three months. We ended the meeting early because we realized we did not have the right people in the room to make decisions, and I sent a follow-up email with next steps within the hour.

When faced with this kind of reaction from the project team – whether it is with regards to the project charter, data summaries, proposed solutions, schedule delays, or identified risks – here are a few things to keep in mind to help you handle the situation with poise.

  • Gather information – Listen to your team to understand what questions and concerns they have. Try to get as much information as possible so that you can clearly outline outstanding issues.
  • Try not to react or get defensive – Similar to what you would get during a lessons learned session, these questions and concerns are forms of feedback. So take the information for what it is and do not make excuses. 
  • Take good notes – While you are not reacting, document as much as you can. Not only will you be better prepared to follow-up after the meeting, you will find that the team appreciates being heard.
  • Have the right people in the room – If possible, have the right people in the room who can answer these kinds of questions. It may be necessary to schedule additional meetings when everyone needed is present.
  • Follow up on outstanding items – Send a simple email summarizing next steps. Quickly and openly seek answers to the questions and concerns that were brought up in the meeting. Assign actions to people, where appropriate, and follow up to make sure they are completed.
  • Do not take it personally – While it is very easy to think that people are attacking you, remember that you are likely the messenger, and they are likely reacting to the work content and not you. It is not the most fun part of project management, but if nothing else, it helps you build a strong backbone.

These conversations will almost always be awkward, but you need to have a little courage under the fire to come out on top.