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Asking The Right Questions About A Project

Paul Naybour Paul Naybour

Published: 15th July 2016

We all know that few projects run smoothly but, as a project manager, you can help your project to avoid too many serious problems by making sure you have asked the right questions upfront and obtained a clear, accurate answer.

By asking detailed questions you can avoid ambiguity, ensure the aims are clearly articulated, ensure the project will deliver on those aims and avoid one of the commonest causes of problems in projects; assumptions made by the stakeholders.
So don’t rush on in – or be pressured to rush on in – without asking as many questions as it takes to get the clarity you need to manage your next project effectively and deliver significant business benefits. Whether the benefits are highly tangible, like a new product or new piece of software, a new process or something less easy to measure such as improving or rescuing a client’s reputation within their industry.

But just what questions should you be asking?
Clearly, every project is different so what to ask, and why, are not always the same but, nevertheless, there are some standard questions that every project manager should know the answer to on every type of project. Small, large, simple or complex projects in all industries all have the same objective so here goes…

What Are The Business Objectives The Project Intends To Achieve?
All projects start because there is an existing business problem that needs to be fixed or because the business wants to achieve something new: deliver a new product, change an existing business process etc. Make sure it’s clear what the objectives are – they must be measurable in some way – even intangible benefits can be measured.
What Business Benefits Will Be Delivered By The Project?
The aims or objectives are separate from the benefits, after all you could deliver a new product but if it was not profitable or didn’t improve on the status quo in some way then there is no benefit to doing the project. Document what the business benefits are expected to be and refer to them at stages throughout the project, particularly when changes are requested and the scope is being changed.

What Will Be The Consequences If The Project Fails To Deliver?
Are there competitive and time-to-market issues for instance? Will the company lose a competitive advantage if the project does not deliver on it’s promises or could non-delivery negatively affect customer service? Could this affect the reputation of the company, and possibly their profitability or financial situation? If there are no serious consequences to the project not going ahead then what is the rationale for it being approved?

Are There Alternatives To This Project?
Are there any other solutions that could deliver the required business benefits and meet the business goals? It might be possible to make simple adjustments to the business-as-usual processes to avoid the costs and risks of the project.

Who Is The Project Sponsor?
This might seem like an obvious question but project sponsors come and go – some are highly committed to their role but others aren’t. Check your sponsor will be around for the duration of the project, try and assess how active they are likely to be in the role (simple if you know them well, less so if they are an unknown quantity). It is the project sponsor’s responsibility to ensure business benefits are realised and to help with problems that cannot be resolved by the project manager. They should lighten your load not be an invisible presence.
Who has the authority to allocate the necessary resources?
It may be someone other than the project sponsor who is responsible for ensuring all necessary resources (time, people and money) are allocated to the project. The project manager needs to know who this is and the other person needs to know it is their responsibility to allocate said resources.

Are There Dependencies On Other Projects?
If your project depends on the success of another project you need to know that, understand the risks associated with that project and the risk to your project of the dependent project not delivering. Request a full status report of the other project, talk to the PM and get a clear picture of progress and issues.

What Are The Success Criteria?
Defining success criteria at the outset will help you meet them – just as with the business benefits they should be documented, tangible and measureable. They are the pre-agreed criteria which will confirm that your project has been a success (or not). And will avoid the situation where the project has been delivered but the stakeholders don’t view the project as a success.

Will Any Training Of End-Users Be Required?
Plan any necessary training in advance – it will bring any reluctant end-users on board with the project (people don’t always like or want change) and reassure them that they will have the skills required to handle the new product/process once it is in place.

Who Will Gather and Document The Business Requirements?
Even on an agile project some definition and documentation of requirements is required – they are just not detailed up front. So make sure the responsible person is assigned to the project – for complex projects this will almost certainly be a business analyst.

Who Will Decide On Any Changes?
Change requests, particularly those that significantly change the scope of the project can be contentious issues and it is common for disputes to arise over whether a change should be implemented or not. So make sure you know – and everyone else involved knows – who has ultimate responsibility to approve a change.

Will The Project Deliverable(s) Need To Be Tested?
The answer to this is almost certainly yes, and if it isn’t you would want to know why not. But you need to establish an acceptance test plan in advance. Testing should be an ongoing process to highlight problems along the way, not left right to the end when problems are harder to fix so find out early on who can support you in this process.

Who will give final sign-off for the project?
As the project manager you will need to know whose responsibility it is to give the final sign-off and to ensure this approval is formally done so that everyone involved knows the project is complete.