At the start of many projects we are in a state of natural ignorance, as we don’t yet know what we don’t know. This is esepecially true when defining a problem or strategy or eliciting requirements. It is extremely valuable to uncover as much relevant information early in a project’s lifecycle, so that we can ensure that the project is set on the right track.
It is important to ask the right questions early on. This encourages our stakeholders to approach the problem-space in a thoughtful and creative way hopefully working around any presuppositions, prejudices and assumptions. Asking a balance of logical and also deliberately provocative questions can help us to get a better understanding of our stakeholders’ worldviews, and help us to understand what they value as well as ideas or requirements.
Provocative questions are those that encourage a stakeholder to think creatively and laterally. They help to uncover any perceived constraints, and can help to evaluate whether those perceived constraints are real or imaginary. They can help to confirm or uncover the business driver behind a project/requirement, and they promote a level of creative thinking which might not be obtained through purely straight forward questioning.
These questions help to challenge our stakeholder’s preconceptions, and ensure that we understand the business driver behind the project/requirement. By explicitly externalising these ideas and constraints early in a project’s lifecycle, it is also an opportunity to spot any conflicts or areas of disconnect between stakeholder groups. This also provides the opportunity to debate and gain consensus on the objective of the project, before moving into discussions over potential solution options.
Here are some examples of some provocative questions you might find useful:
1. “If there were no constraints (budget/time), what would your ideal solution/outcome look like?”: This is often seen as a dangerous question, as it opens up scope. It certainly needs to be used alongside clear expectation management, however it can get us closer to the real business problem or opportunity that is being addressed by the project.
2. “What is the worst possible project outcome from your perspective, and why?” : This might sound like an abrasive and counter-intuitive question, so it’s essential that you are sure you have built good rapport with a stakeholder before using it. This question is valuable as it helps to elicit values, constraints and tolerances. For example, if the worst possible outcome is “Late delivery, because the regulator will shut us down”, then you know that time is the key constraint.
3. “Imagine nothing changes. What would happen, and where would the organisation be in 12 months time?”: This question helps to understand the relative urgency of the project, and is also likely to uncover any environmental factors. It also helps to confirm the business drivers for the project.
4. “If you had to articulate the project objectives in a single short sentence, what would it be. And how will these objectives help the project to deliver financial benefit?”: It can be enlightening to ask stakeholders to succinctly state the purpose of a project, stating how this is of financial benefit. Often, different stakeholders have subtly different worldviews, and therefore perceive projects differently. For example, an operational stakeholder may focus on efficiencies, a marketing stakeholder may focus on increased revenue. Even when a business case has been drafted, stakeholders tend to have slightly different views on what benefits will be realised (and how they will be realised). This is extremely useful to know, as it will uncover any areas of disconnect early so that they can be resolved.
5. “Imagine if we fast-forward to 2 years after the implementation of this project, what will the organisation look like?”: This question helps gain an understanding of the future state of the organisation, and what it means for the people and processes that run it. It can be used to get a sense for the size of the change that is envisaged. For example, does it involve significant organisational restructure? Or is this out of scope?
6. “How do our competitors handle this? Do we want to be the same, or different from them?”: Often, business stakeholders will look to see how a competitor has solved a particular problem, and will initiate a project to replicate this. In some circumstances, this will be a completely valid approach. However, a better solution might be to differentiate from competitors, and solve the problem in a new way that increases value to customers.
8. “Is there any other way your business objectives could be met? If not, can you explain why this is the case?”: It is extremely useful to know whether delivering a particular project is genuinely the only way to address the business problem/opportunity that has been identified. There might be others, and it’s useful to know whether they have been ruled out. Other options might include:
- Process (rather than IT) changes
- Organisational changes
- Outsourcing work
- Manual workarounds
In summary, using provocative questions is a great way to encourage lateral thinking amongst your project stakeholders. This will help to surface ideas, values, issues and perceived constraints. Once these thoughts have been explicitly surfaced, they can be discussed and re-evaluated.
Encouraging lateral thinking helps to uncover imaginary constraints, and helps us challenge the business objectives to ensure they are sound. I hope that the questions above help you engage with your stakeholders and understand what their projects mean for them.
Do you have any favourite “provocative” questions that you use when engaging in project work? If so, I’d love to hear them. Please feel free to contact me directly, or reply to this blog post.