Watch Out, A Question Could Be …

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Ever have one of those projects or work assignments that just don’t make sense? How about the project that just keeps on going and going (like the Energizer Bunny)? Have you ever had a what was thought to be a question, turn into a full scale project or in depth analysis? Over the years, I have too many of these to count! It is amazing how many I can remember like they were yesterday. Those particular projects or work assignments just pop to the forefront of my mind. I got a question the other day, “why does it happen sometimes and not other times?” Great question! Really got me looking back for an answer. I started looking at the basics of why and how those projects were started. There were many reasons but when I strip back to just the one’s that went nowhere or really were costly with no real return. I come out with a simple answer – they pretty much all started like this. Someone high up asks, “Have we looked at XYZ?” or “Could we use XYZ?” or “What would it cost to do XYZ?” Great questions that get passed down leader to leader to the ones doing the work. Think back to the experiment in elementary school about a simple sentence that is said to one and passed through the rest of the class. Do you remember the last one saying what he heard? Well, that exercise lives on when we are adults. That simple question turns into a full blown analysis that requires more understanding, trials, support, negotiations and then an ROI.

This example is not real, but I bet many folks could relate something that they have had to work on to this example. CEO comes from a trade show where he/she was a guest speaker. Ran into something that trade show that looked interesting and thought maybe this could be something for his/her company. Upon returning, asks CIO, “has your team looked at this software?” Could be a competitive hammer over our current software (if not better). CIO at the time does not know, so fires off an email to the VP of engineering. VP to Director and then Director to Product Line Manager – you get the drill. By the time it gets to PLM – we have a fully sanctioned project. With extremely tight timelines and lots of “important” eyes are watching.

We should all have questions that need some level of understanding. Leaders have to have answers to questions. The important point to remember is your question just for basic understanding or do you really want an in depth analysis? What level of cycles are you going to let your people work on something? Does other work that is already being performed get disrupted by answering a question. Well, those simple points sometimes are not reviewed or positioned properly.

Lots of people are engaged on this now “important” project. Work is getting done and information is starting to be gathered. Reviews up the chain are happening and more in depth questions come popping out. Of course, what was the original intent of the question is not reviewed. Project is almost completed and a larger report out is made to VP and CIO. Plenty of work done, some more still needed if we want to move forward… CIO discusses with CEO. CEO says, “Wow, lots of work went into this. Why? I only asked have we looked at it, could we use it and should we use it?”

How to avoid these useless exercises in the future, as the leader you need to:

  • Be clear in your question. What is the intent? What are you trying to learn, do or make happen? A simple question can turn into much more than you intended.
  • Set a timeline that fits your level of need in the question. If it is just a simple answer, then give it a short timeline. Don’t give an a deadline of enough time that much more can get done than needed. If you ask your leader for a timeline to get the answer back – listen for understanding of your question. If that lower level leader is asking for too much time – than the likelihood that they will be doing more than necessary is a sure thing.
  • Recognize that sometimes “no” is a good thing. Do you really need an answer? Putting your organization into a get an answer, maybe a waste of their time. You should survey that before you ask. I don’t know how many of those projects, I heard – “that is much more information than I asked for.” Damn, did I just waste my time?

If you are assigned one of these projects or work assignments.. It is easy to just go off and do. Many times the questions you need to ask, will help define what really is needed. I have learned not to assume that the leaders above you had the answers. They maybe telling you their understanding of the question. Going to the direct source maybe hard, but in the long run – it could pay off.


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