1 February 2016

Employee Super Power 2 – Asking Questions

Author: James Middleton

Let’s paint the picture that I hope not too many of you have had to face. You have the first viewing of the project that you’re working on with your client or with your project manager. You unravel the piece of work (it could be anything from an animation to a new app)… there’s that very uncomfortable pause and then you know that everything you’ve done is going to have to be done again. It’s wrong. Let’s take a look at what most likely caused this awkward (and expensive) encounter.

The Problem

Like in the movies, imagine everything suddenly rewinding really fast to the moment when you’re sitting in front of your client/project manager and they’re explaining what they want. The mighty briefing phase! Two things could’ve potentially happened in this moment (freeze frame of the conversation taking place between the two of you):

  • The person briefing you has no idea what they want and is just talking (a very common occurrence)
  • You are completely misunderstanding what they’re saying (less common in my opinion)

When either of the two above scenarios occur, the core of the problem is that both people leave with a different understanding of what is required and what the final product needs to be. You’ve missed each other. One person is thinking blue while the other is thinking red. One person is thinking salt while the other is thinking pepper. It’s a train wreck waiting to happen and nobody can see it.

The Solution

In order to avoid this happening, one has to directly combat the two scenarios that were mentioned earlier. While we’ll look at each scenario separately, the crux is that you have to understand the context and build a common ‘sense’ between the two of you. You both have to be thinking “blue”. You both have to be thinking “salt”.

How does one do this? Simple answer… by asking as many questions as possible. You want to get into their head, understand what their context is, what their goals are, what their expectations are and how they think.

Scenario 1: The rambling talker

If we look at scenario 1 where the individual doesn’t know what they want, your fist goal is to understand their context (and help them understand their own context). Don’t be afraid to dig deep either! Who are the key role players and where do they fit in? How have they done similar things in the past? What is the ultimate goal of the project? Who will it be affecting? What are the timelines like? Ideally, taking them through this question and answer process will help them define exactly what they want and they will be able to better articulate the solution that they require from you. However, more often that not, it is still necessary and valuable to weigh in with your own expertise and experience now that you understand the lay of the land.

Scenario 2: I’m thinking ‘blue’ and you’re thinking ‘red’

Scenario 2 is slightly more complex and something that I’ve experienced recently. The danger with it is that you can be completely unaware it’s has happened at all and next thing, you’re starting from the beginning again! I believe that avoiding this unfortunate scenario is more of a “gut feel gift” than a scientific method. You’ll most likely leave the briefing session with that slightly uneasy feeling sitting in your stomach. There may be the smallest seed of doubt. Take note of those alarm bells!

I would recommend sleeping on your understanding of the situation and solution. Talk it through with someone that may be experienced in this type of project or with someone that has worked with the person that briefed you before. Put together a very clear, concise and unambiguous definition of what you’ll be providing and take it back to your client/project manager before getting going on the work. Hopefully they’ll see the direction that you’re taking and either agree with you or bring you into line with what they’re envisioning.

While everything above may sound like a nice, big chunk of emotional effort (and sometimes it is), I guarantee you that in the long run you’ll be saving yourself lots of heartache and money. It is far cheaper to plan more in the beginning than it is to go back and change work that has already gone past a certain stage.

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