Understanding questions

question marksI came across this post from the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University detailing the different categories of questions:


Some Different Types of Questioning

Facilitating student discussions can be one of the most difficult aspects of teaching. Listed below are some different types of questioning one might use to encourage student participation in class.

Open Ended Questions

What’s Going On? What do you make of this situation? Casting question nets out to see what comes in. Listening for entry and emphasis points.

Asking for Information

Where? When? Who? What? Facts and opinions.

Diagnostic Questions

How do you interpret and explain “A” and “B’s” impact on the situation?How do you weave these points into some kind of understanding of what else is going on, possibly behind the scenes?

Challenge Questions

Why do you say that? How would you explain� Where is the evidence for what you say? How can you say a thing like that? Is that all? That’s just the opposite of what Student X said. Can you persuade him/her?

Extension Questions

Exploring the issues. What else? Can you take us farther down that path or find new tributaries? Keep going? Therefore?

Combination Questions

How would you relate your points to those mentioned by Student A or to something else you said?
How would you understand X in light of Y?

Priority Questions

Which issues do you consider most important? Where do you start? How would you rank these?Action Questions
What would you do in Person X’s shoes? How?

Prediction Questions

What do you think would happen if we followed Student Z’s action plan? Give us a forecast of your expectations. How will he/she react to your thinking?

Generalizing and Summarizing Questions

What inferences can we make from this discussion and case? What generalizations would you make? How would you summarize the three most critical issues that we have discussed? Can you summarize the high points of the discussion thus far?


What I find interesting is that, while intended to be questions asked of students in a classroom, these exact same questions are the sort of things that ought to be asked in the workplace when attempting to promote continuous improvement.  This list of questions serves as a useful study guide for anyone looking to conduct a root cause analysis or initiate a process change.

Why your PMP prep doesn’t feel like reality (and why it shouldn’t)

A Break in Reality

A Break in Reality by xetobyte

I am in the midst of a PMP prep examination these days, diving deeper into the project PMI’s methodology for project management than I ever have before.  Despite more than a decade of working on nothing but project & program teams, I’ve never gone after PMI certification.

True to my affinity for Lean thinking, I don’t put much stock in these type of certifications.  The class is bearing out that the intent is simply to pass the test, not build better project managers.  Everything is about the test, the test, the test – and there is very little about the development of the principles taught and how they came about.  Just. Pass. The. Test.  The test is also intentionally deceptive – minor turns of a phrase mean different things in “PMI Land” as the instructors like to call it.  A big part of passing the exam is tuning your eye to catch these clever little interpretations and usages – a skill which is useful for only 1 project: passing the test.

It is easy to understand why so many fellow students get frustrated and jokingly state that the exam does not reflect reality.  Unfortunately, what seems to get lost, is that it’s not supposed to.


As I study the guidebooks for this class that are introducing us all to the PMI concepts, I am harking back to my Lean training and the years I’ve spent contemplating Operational Excellence through my writings on this blog.  In my mind are the oft-repeated Lean-thinking mantras: “Theory guides practice” and “There can be no improvement without a standard.”  Thank you, Dr. Deming and Mr. Shingo (and, please, OpEx gurus out there – correct me if I am quoting them wrong.)

I feel lucky to have the benefit of my time spent trying to understand the Lean paradigm because it is offering so much insight into what the PMI framework is trying to do.  It is establishing a standard.  It is offering a methodology for managing projects against which all other management styles, and outcomes, can be measured.  In a way, it depicts the ideal – if all projects, everywhere, operated in the way the PMI describes, then all projects would deliver on time, within budget, and with inputs from all stakeholders at every level of the organization – including customers.

Is that reality?  No.  Of course not.  If the standard was reality, there’d be no need to set up a test for it.  A standard is not meant to depict reality.  What it does do, however, is give us an ideal scenario against which to judge and measure the current state.  How far from this standard are we?  Did we make an intelligent deviation, based on detailed analyses of how our environment differs from that depicted in the standard, or did we simply throw up our hands and say, “But this is the way we’ve always done it?” (Or words to that effect, such as “I’ve never seen that” or “That just won’t work here.”)

When theory doesn’t match reality, there are 2 options:  Change the theory to match reality, or change reality to match the theory.  Those who argue the PMI framework just isn’t reality will be the ones trying to change theory in order to better align with their expectations – nearly all of which demonstrate a daunting tolerance for inefficiency & waste.  On the other hand, if you accept that the “theory” is really just a depiction of the ideal – you instantaneously give yourself something to work towards.  It is the “true north” of the program & project management world – to have a perfectly managed, documented, planned, monitored, tracked and executed set of activities that are completely understood and performed by all stakeholders.

My advice for those who are poo-pooing the PMI framework as nothing more than an academic exercise designed to pass a test (which, to some extent, it is), is to think of the methods provided within the framework a bit differently.  The tools and techniques they teach are not  a set of instructions on how to effectively manage projects.  Think of them, instead, as a depiction of a perfect universe – and use that depiction to begin thinking about the gaps between your current reality and the PMI’s idealized scenarios.


What to do when you don’t know the way to go

plot a course for home
plot a course for home

plot a course for home by wildwinyan

My 3-year-old is following in his 7-year-old brother’s footsteps and taking an intense interest in Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer.  After a couple years of not having to listen to the theme song ad nauseum, we’re back into the thick of things.

For those who are not familiar with the show, Dora frequently goes on adventures and isn’t certain which way to go.  In those situation, she calls upon her trusty map, which shows her the way.

If only we were all so well prepared.

In business and in life, we all need a map.  Too often, we move without thinking or jump in without looking.  We buy into the paradigm that says we ought to fail fast, but we don’t bother to ask, “Fail at what?”  Failing for the sake of failing isn’t the path to enlightenment, it’s just stupid.  Even if you’re prepared to accept failure – that failure needs to be leading in the direction of some intended destination, meandering as the path may be.  Otherwise, the exercise never ends and nothing is ever learned.  It’s just activity for the sake of activity.

Activity without planning at any level is just folly and entirely wasteful.  Planning is the result of consulting the map  –  we can see the current location, the destination, and the obstacles in between.  Without a destination in mind, and a plan for getting from here to there, all that results is misalignment of goals, fits and starts, lost momentum and, quite frequently, situations where people are more than happy to clear an entire forest just to deliver a toothpick.  The purpose, after all, was to show activity over and above the value of delivering the end product.

The guiding principles of an organization are what the people working within that organization turn to when they don’t know the way to go.  Those principles align people and, even if there is no certain way to go, will at least tell you which way you should not go.  In effect, they become your map.  They let you know where the terrain is flat and clear, or rocky and overgrown, and allows you to see all the other route options to help you adjust course and still reach your destination.

Any organization, regardless of size or complexity, needs to have guiding principles (see the Shingo Model for more elaboration on the impact of guiding principles).  When all else fails, adhering to these principles will offer assurance that people are still operating within the spirit of your organization.

Project Management & Measurement gamed


Measurement_ by spacesuitcatalyst on deviantart.com

In a recent article on his blog, Dan Markovitz offered this statement:

“One problem with stretch goals, I believe, is that they focus on outcome metrics, and can therefore be gamed.”

That got me thinking about how we analyze and measure progress on business projects.  All too often, I have seen project leads engage in gaming metrics as if their ability to adjust the numbers was the real purpose of their jobs.  As I indicated in my comments on Dan’s article, “How do we make these numbers look better” is an operational question, not a spreadsheet exercise.

Yet, project management tends to be all about outcome metrics.  Tracking costs vs. plan, Earned Value, Cost and Schedule Performance Indices, consumed slack – all are about what happened.  Granted, there’s an effort inherent to those practices that says the future can be predicted by understanding the past, however, that approach also seems to indicate that errors are acceptable.  Especially if we read a bunch of charts and graphs and variance analyses to tell us that we had a problem some number of days, or weeks, ago.

Somehow, that doesn’t seem good enough.

I’ve seen far too many managers who are completely distant from the day-to-day operations of the projects and processes that ought to be occurring right under their noses but, unfortunately, have become dependent upon analyst-manipulated reports to convey information.  This reality only seems to point out the importance of applying concepts such as leader standard work  to project management and controls.  Simply put – leaders need to have an understanding of not just the outcomes and results of their team’s efforts, but to be inherently familiar with the mechanisms and processes by which that work gets done.

When those processes are not measured, analyzed and understood – all that’s left is a pile of reports measuring the outcomes.  When those metrics don’t show things as expected, then there’s a loose interpretation of the inputs that goes on – in order to justify the manipulation of numbers before they get passed on to the next level of review.  “The data doesn’t reflect reality” or “we need to make an adjustment to the numbers” is heard all too often.  If the data is so easily, and subjectively, corrected then its method of collection can also be easily corrected, too so that good information is passed along, not manually tweaked information that results in nothing more than watermelon reporting (the phenomenon by which red projects get greener as the reporting moves higher up).

The best way out of this?  Understanding the way in which the metrics are compiled is one.  The better solution, however, is to be involved.  Know who is working on the team, and why, and how they work, and what they are working on.  Engage in the human elements and be aware of not only what is going on, but what should be going on.  This places a premium on good planning and strong servant leadership.

The worst project & program managers I’ve ever worked with very often never looked at the reports that were provided to them.  They simply didn’t understand the information and/or believed that force of personality was sufficient to effect positive outcomes.  Some of the best I’ve worked with didn’t read the reports, either – because there was nothing in all that data that they did not know already.