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Friday, April 1, 2016

The Inquiring Project Manager

     One skill unerringly points to the competent manager: The question habit.
     Good managers ask a lot of questions. Besides the need to know what’s going on and why, they must be able to negotiate well – something that calls for a really well developed sense of questioning.
     Whenever I can, I squeeze a negotiating piece into management training, especially project management training. They’re negotiating all the time.
     Good negotiators do a lot of careful preparation, but they are fully aware that they can never know enough to completely understand the values – and therefore the motivations – of their counterpart(s) on the other side of the table.
     So their presentation of incentives in bargaining is preceded by, and continually enriched by, a search for additional information. The Holy Grail is finding the route to a mutually beneficial outcome.
     Real negotiators are never looking to beat anybody. They want happy campers all around when it’s over. They recognize that there will be a future.

     They employ open questions, lots of them. And especially the kind of really open question that is in the form of a comment designed to set off ample response by the other party: “You’ve got quite a reputation for really knowing the publishing industry. Whenever people talk about publishing, your name comes up.” Pause.
     More often than not, that will elicit some conversation from the counterpart. It’s hard to resist talking when you’re offered encouragement like that.
     Anything more explicit may not be necessary. But if it is, a slight push usually will do the trick. Say, with a modified open question: “People nowadays think they can do it themselves and save a lot of money. What do you think?”
     Once you trigger the person’s interest, you keep it going by judicious insertion of thoughtful additional questions and comments. Your intention is to open a channel in which useful information will flow.
     It’s sales. You get the prospect talking. If you’re alert, and ask the right questions in the right places, you’ll turn up some useful clues to information and motivation.

     An important area that is sorely in need of questions – and generally gets far too few of them – is that of assumptions. This issue is a vital matter in project management and in any negotiation, but you find it in every venue of life. We deal with it dozens of times a day – mostly in tiny ways, and unexpectedly in very important moments.
     Anything that is stated as a given, an incontrovertible truth, should be a prime target for questioning. And definitely so if it is presented strongly, with absolute assurance. When you’re not careful, emotional intensity can seem to be an adequate substitute for facts and proof. It’s not.
     In any situation, the key that could unlock seemingly intractable disagreement often is embedded in one or more of those purported absolutes: “Management will never accept anything that doesn’t include these five factors and isn’t finished by (date).”
     It is not unusual for the parties in a negotiation to stipulate such matters as unchangeable, then exhaust themselves attempting to save the ship by rearranging the available deck chairs.

     What if, having discovered they are at a no-win point, they open the door wide to questions? Questions about everything – including what had seemed utterly, fundamental so.
    The wide-open door to questions might produce this possibility: Let’s find out just why we were told there had to be those five factors and the absolute deadline.
     What information were they working from? Why these five factors, and why this deadline? What do the executives really want, and what are they prepared to give in return for it?
     There may be realities now revealed that counter the original assumptions of the senior management directives.
     The focus of negotiation is radically changed. Now the original negotiators join forces to convince their bosses to critically examine those defining assumptions – quite possibly for the first time. And then adopt a mutually advantageous solution resulting from their new understanding.
     The habit of examining everything, taking nothing as given, is a hallmark of good management.

     No question. 

We value the good listener. What are your views on how asking questions fits into the good listener description? Please comment.

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