Asking Basic Questions to Become More Effective

Why don’t you explain this to me like I’m five?   - Michael Scott

One of the more challenging situations you may encounter as a project manager is when you are assigned to a project in an area/function/department that is totally new to you, and you are expected to make sense of a ton of information that you do not even yet understand.

When starting a new project, I typically meet with the sponsor and/or the project lead to understand exactly what it is we are trying to achieve. As you likely know by now, a charter is a really good way to begin that conversation and align the team toward a north star.

  Image courtesy of renjith krishnan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of renjith krishnan at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Once you all understand where you are going, then you need to quickly get into the details and build the project plan. When it is a familiar subject, you probably know what questions to ask and how the flow of the project plan will likely develop.

But if it is a new subject, to truly be an effective project manager, you need to rewind the conversation and ask the project lead and workstream leads some really basic questions. And yes, you may worry that your team members will think less of you for not knowing this information already. And yes, you may feel like you are slowing the progress down by asking questions that were probably answered for them back in their college 101 classes. And yes, it may be scary to interrupt your subject matter expert and ask her to answer a really basic question in front of people who have known this information since they were teenagers.

However, if you do not understand these basics, you will not be able to ask the right questions to identify risks, interdependencies, opportunities, change management needs, and/or basic steps to getting the work done. And then the project will not be successful. And trust me, that is way worse than being the one who asks the “stupid” questions.

I can think of a ton of examples of when I have asked these really basic questions. When building out an IT project plan recently, I said something to the effect of, “so pretend you are in the first day of IT class back in college, and tell me what the function of a server is and when you may or may not need one.” And my team member laughed (with me, not at me) and was happy to explain it to me.

Here are a few things to remember when you are new to the subject matter of a project you are managing:

  • You will not be as effective a project manager if you do not understand the basics of what needs to get done. So have some courage and ask the "stupid" questions!
  • Your team members should not expect you to know everything there is to know about a subject you have never studied. (You do not expect them to know how to be a project manager, do you?)
  • For cross-functional teams, other team members likely have the same questions you do, so you are also enabling the team to be more effective by clarifying the basics.
  • Using humor (e.g., “pretend this is your first day of college and explain IT to me”) always helps if you still feel uncomfortable asking some of the basic questions.

So if you find yourself in a situation where you do not know much about a subject area, do not fret! Do yourself and your team a favor and ask a lot of questions until you have a better understanding of the work and can be a more effective project manager.