The Art of Asking Questions

The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.   - Thomas Berger

When I first started out in the working world, I was given the feedback that I should speak up more — ask questions and offer my opinion. As a newbie to the workplace, I admit that I was a bit hesitant to participate. I was working with people who had decades of experience, and many of whom had kids my age. They surely know better than I do, right?

Around that time, one of my colleagues — a good friend and mentor — observed that I typically only offer my voice when I have something really insightful and/or thought out to add. She said that she was impressed with how articulate I was, but that I should put myself out there a bit more. 

And she was right. While it is certainly important to be a good listener — perhaps equally as important — if you have something to say, you need to have the courage to say it!

I knew that I had more to say, but that fear of saying the “wrong” thing held me back. And I often left meetings feeling unsatisfied and disappointed with myself, thinking, “If only I said what I was thinking — we could have gotten to a resolution easier and faster.” Or, “No one knows about all of my good ideas because I never say them out loud.” And perhaps the worst feeling: “Man, I looked stupid just sitting there.”

I had the opportunity to be trained and certified as a six sigma black belt as part of a post-grad school rotational program. How lucky I was to have that opportunity! When it comes down to it, six sigma is problem solving at its finest. Surface-level information is not accepted as the full story. You must take it a few steps further and ask "Why?" enough times so that you get to the root of the issue, question, or problem. You need to ask enough questions so that you can figure out what is actually happening. And then you fix the root cause rather than put a bandaid on the surface.

The Tree Swing cartoon below shows why asking questions is important when working with customers and understanding their wants and needs.

There is a lot to talk about with this cartoon. But imagine what kind of tree swing would have been built if the person who initially received the customer's request asked a few more questions!

When you are a project manager, one of the most important things you can do is ask questions — good ones, stupid ones, complicated ones, ones you already know the answers to, and ones that you know do not have answers.

Your job is to help people figure things out. You need to have a curiosity to go beyond what your team members are telling you and get to the root of their question, the root of the issue, or the truth behind the pretty picture that usually is painted for you, as people do not typically like to admit that something is wrong. 

Asking questions is also a way to represent your team. Chances are that if you have a question about something, other people do, too. And as the person who is in charge of meetings and facilitates team discussions, you are doing yourself and your team members a disservice if you do not ask any and all questions that come to mind.

One way to hold yourself accountable to asking questions is to build it into your role as project manager. You can even ask questions behind the guise of “devil’s advocate” if the question you plan to ask is a bit sensitive, unpopular, or “stupid.” (Devil’s advocate is also useful with sponsors as your are trying to question them in a respectful way.)

So PLEASE ask questions! And you will find that the project will be better off and your teammates will thank you later.