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Get the Right Answers to Make the Right Decisions

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” – Albert Einstein

Decisions solve problems and are the forerunners of action. According to Oxford Language a decision is “a conclusion or resolution reached after consideration.” Decision making is “the action or process of deciding something or of resolving a question.”

Decision making is at the heart of effective performance. It is a complex process that relies on a combination of both external, interpersonal, and intrapersonal factors.


Stepping Back to Consider

Einstein’s estimate of how long it would take to solve the problem may be optimistic for those of us lacking the genius’ intellect, but the ability to step back and ask the right questions is critical to being an effective decision maker. The principle is true for individuals and teams alike.

The primary definition of decision says one is made after consideration of questions to uncover and narrow down alternatives, make sure that there is understanding of the problem, and to focus attention on critical issues.

“The affect of asking the right question is statistically profound. … we saw that asking the right question increased the odds of someone’s work having a positive affect on others by 4.1 times. It made the outcome 3.1 times more likely to be deemed important, 2.8 times more likely to create passion in the doer, and perhaps most significant to company leaders, 2.7 times more likely to make a positive impact on the organization’s bottom line.”


What to Consider?

What are the proper questions? For example the question “Why is it that when we want to call and talk to a person, we have to call a place?” asked by a Motorola project manager charged with creating the next generation of car radiotelephone led ultimately to the personal mobile phone rather than to a solution that focused on a location, whether at home, in office, or in a car.



There are seven questions that are widely accepted as the basics for getting the right information for making a decision – who, what, when, where, why, how, and how much. Of these, the why question, is the most controversial and often the most difficult to ask.

A brief internet search uncovers articles that insist on asking why and those that say not to ask why because it is too confrontative and often comes from being judgmental as opposed to being curious. Of course, it depends on the context and the reason for the question.

In the context of project management, “why?” is a critical question that helps to make effective decisions.

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Do or Die

Imagine being a project manager who has been assigned a project that must deliver a specified result in six weeks. You ask, “Why that result and in that time frame?”  If the response is “Because the client wants it?” do you push back?

Or do you walk away ready to give your team the same answer you got from your boss or the customer contact person? Telling them “Ours is not to wonder why. Ours is just to do or die.”

Would the client be averse to the “why” question? If so, “Why? How about if the question were rephrased as, “We often find that there are several ways to achieve your business goals and some are often better than the solution we first think of. Can we explore the reason for your objective so that we might be able to better serve you?”

Note the possibilities here. The client might be completely closed to any other solutions and require that you “do or die.” Or, the client might be interested and open minded enough to identify the reasons for the objectives and be open to alternative solutions that would be less costly and more effective at achieving business objectives.

That is why wise project managers insist upon getting answers to the proper questions. Failure to do so not only makes for suboptimal solutions, but putsd the manager and team in a position to take the blame for it.


The Right/Proper Questions

Detectives ask questions to uncover means, motive and opportunity. Project managers may ask questions that take them “out of the box of conventional thinking, but they must ask questions that consider the situation at hand:

  • Are expectations rational?
  • What will happen if we don’t ask the right questions?
  • What are the business goals and project objectives?
  • Why are they the objectives?
  • Are there alternative objectives that would achieve the goals?
  • What are the criteria for success? Why? Who established them? Who will determine if they have been met?
  • What are the consequences of failure? Of success?
  • What are the risks  that might get in the way of success?  What are their likelihood and impact?
  • When will the project be performed and when is it expected to be completed?
  • What human and material resources are needed? Why? What quality characteristics must they have? Are there alternatives?
  • Are the resources available? When will they be needed? Why? How could they be made available?
  • What is the project environment like? Can it be made more “friendly” to project performance?
  • Who are the stakeholders and what are their roles and responsibilities?
  • Who will be impacted by the project’s performance and its results? How will they be impacted? How can impact be influenced to make it more positive?
  • What is the project history – e.g., was this or a similar project performed in the past? How can lessons learned be used to inform the current team?
  • What procedures and tools will be used? Why? Are there alternatives?


Courage and Patience

Often, everyone wants to just get on with the work, to “just do it.” It takes courage and patience to take the time and effort to step back and ask the proper questions, even in the face of resistance by key stakeholders to explore reasons and alternatives.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.