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10 top tips for creating timing plans: Question when questioning

In the last post we looked at the importance of asking questions and not guessing or making assumptions when creating a timing plan or project plan. But how should you ask, and what should ask? Asking good questions is probably one of the most important and powerful project management skills – in this post we’ll explore how we can effectively ensure we’re asking the right questions to produce rock solid timing and project plans.

Being a friendly cynic

Beyond just asking someone to estimate how long something is going to take, you need to help them understand the context around their estimation. It’s no good just asking someone how long something will take in isolation. As they provide you a timeline estimate, you need to begin to interrogate how they came to the number. You’ll often find that as you begin to tease out the details of their estimation, they’ll begin to think of elements that they forgot to include and you’ll begin to get an understanding of dependencies around individual tasks.

When someone has given you an estimate for the duration of a task, you need to question it – be friendly, but cynical. Ask them if that includes time for any amends, feedback, or QA.  Make sure that you know, when you’re asked, why all the elements in the timeline are estimated as they are.

Keep it open and closed

So how do you ask the right questions?  Keep in mind the end objective – discovering why things are estimated as they are, how they intersect and what tasks they are dependent on. It’s important to use a combination of both open and closed questions to understand how long each tasks is going to take and how the tasks intersect with other tasks.

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Open questions are important because they lead to more than a one-word answer, they provide breadth and tend to start with, Where? What? When? Where? How? or Which? These are great questions to use to gain an understanding of the bigger picture as they give you detailed and better quality information, exploring ideas and opinions when you’re questioning someone – helping them to crystallize their thoughts.

Closed questions are important too – they ensure that give a very clear and narrow focus and usually provide one-word answers. They usually begin with: Could? Should? Would? Have you? Do you? These questions are important when you’re ratifying facts, clarifying a point or providing some direction to the information being gathered.

Try to identify possibilities and opportunities

If you don’t ask enough questions or are just intent on getting numbers for creating our project or timing plans, we can end up missing opportunities to create efficiencies. Remember that it’s just as important to use the questions to identify efficiencies as it is to just produce a timing plan. Try beginning with preliminary information and clarification questions, progress to more probing questions and then more onto identifying possibilities. By ordering in this way you’ll give whomever you’re questioning the opportunity to establish a solid base to think more creatively about possible future states.

What not to ask

As much as it’s important to ask the write questions, we also need to be wary of asking the wrong questions. Avoid asking leading or loaded questions where you suggest an answer or solution in the question. Questions like this will often begin with ‘Do you think that…’  or ‘Don’t you think that…’.

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Remember too to keep it simple and, avoid asking multiple questions or linked questions at once – just ask one thing at a time. And try to avoid “Why” questions as they can sound critical. You can still get similar answers to that question by choosing a different way of asking a question. For example: ‘tell me about…’, or ‘what do you think are the reasons for…’

Play it back

Once you’ve asked your question, make sure you replay the answers you’re given to make sure you’ve understood properly. Remember, you’re going to need to understand each line on your project plan, it’s duration and dependencies.

What do you think?

What do you think we’re missing? What else is there to asking the right questions that should PM’s be thinking about when creating timing plans? We’d love to hear if you’ve got any more tips – why not share them using the comments below?

10 top tips for creating timing and project plans

This 10 top tips blog series has been written as a guide for estimating and approaching creating cost estimates in the midst of it all. In this series of posts we’re looking at the following:

About Ben Aston

I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager and VP of Client Services at FCV, a full service digital agency in Vancouver, Canada. I've been in the industry for more than 10 years working in the UK at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from video virals to CMS’, flash games to banner ads and eCRM to eCommerce sites. I’ve been fortunate enough to work across a wide range of great clients; automotive brands including Land Rover, Volkswagen and Honda; Utility brands including BT, British Gas and Exxon, FMCG brands such as Unilever, and consumer electronics brands including Sony.

One Comment

  • Simon says:

    Hi Ben,

    I think what you have shared about question technique is really important. During my time as a Project Manager I learned the importance of how you ask questions as well as which questions to ask. When teasing out this sort of information you have to think like a coach and carefully frame each question. So much of the job for a Project Manager is around communication and relationship management; these things make the process part of project management much easier.

    I also think (as you point out) that looking at alternatives is critically important. If you have a chance to brainstorm various approaches to solving tasks and activities (and even the job as a whole) you can radically improve the timelines and success of a project.

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