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Lesson Learned: Asking Questions isn’t Enough!

FEATUREOct10thAs a global business consultant, entrepreneur and operations strategist, I’ve seen countless business strategies, plans and projects succeed or fail based solely on what might be considered a nonessential question.  On one hand, I’ve promoted that leaders and project managers ask questions; however, I’ve seen that approach fail as well.  Instead, it boils down to whether you’re asking the right questions at the right time. 

This situation arose recently in a client project.  After following what seemed to be all the right processes – implementing improved internal communication processes, working closely with the supplier to resolve tooling issues and keeping the customer in the loop with progress to ensure improved delivery performance, a failure occurred. 

When I started to ask questions to determine the recovery plan (as it related to a project I was focused on), it became obvious that although we spent significant time with the supplier and asked all sorts of questions, we didn’t have the planning expertise involved to ask the right question at the right time to fully address the issue.  We were “all over” resolving the technical issues and had made substantial progress yet the customer was negatively impacted – again!

So, what did we learn from this experience (other than hiding under the table when the customer arrived)?

  1. Start with the objective:  When asking questions as to the status of a project or in resolving an issue, it is critical to understand the objective.  In our example, we had 2 objectives:  1) Resolve the technical issues so that our supplier was better able to support our customer requirements long term.  2) Understand what could be achieved in the interim so that we could confidently communicate to our customer.  We didn’t ask all the right questions to fully address #2.
  2. Involve the right expertise:  I’ve learned that you don’t know what you don’t know.  Seems obvious; however, it is essential to determine what gaps might exist so that you address them proactively.  In our case, we had an abundance of technical and procurement expertise; however, we didn’t have the planning expertise.  Thus, we asked when the material would be available; however, we didn’t ask further questions and dig into the answers in enough depth to get to a reasonable delivery date projection.
  3. Develop critical path timelines:  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the importance of developing critical path timelines.  Which tasks are dependent on other tasks?  Is there a way to shorten the timeframe in between tasks?  Certainly, when you are in a past due situation, it is even more essential to fully understand the options with your critical path.  In our case, the same skills could be used on part A or part B (both required to satisfy the customer).  We were behind on part A and so focused significant efforts on A; however, we shouldn’t have lost sight of part B.  Instead, we should have asked more questions to account for and optimize for both part A and part B.
  4. Track progress & follow-up:  This equates to motherhood and apple pie of resolving business issues, implementing organizational change etc.; however, it is worth emphasizing.  Although it seems obvious, it’s easy to forget as fires arise.  Instead, set up reminders, meetings, calls, follow-up vehicles etc.  In our case, we had good follow-up in place; however, if you aren’t following up on the right tasks (based on the right questions) at the right time, it doesn’t fully achieve the benefits.

Asking questions is important to everyday business success; however, asking the right questions at the right time is vital to thriving in today’s new normal business environment.  Who can afford to spend the time and effort to focus on doing all the right things yet be in the wrong game?

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