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In IT projects better questions lead to better solutions - faster too


“If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution,” so said Steve Jobs.

I love this quote.

Often though, IT projects run into trouble because the team is working hard to answer the wrong question!

I’ve shared this story with you before, I’m sure, but I think it sums up the problem. One of the founders of Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute Of Design (the ‘’), Bernie Roth tells of the time that he hired a car. He needed fuel so he pulled into a petrol station and looked high and low for the release for the petrol cap. He applied his designer’s mind to the problem. He tried to think where, if he’d designed the car, he would have put the little lever ... but to no avail.

Eventually, another car, like Bernie’s drove onto the forecourt and he walked over to ask the driver is she could tell him where the release was. The woman looked at him bemused before answering that there wasn’t one.

Bernie had been so busy trying to answer the question ‘where is the release for the fuel tank’ whereas the actual question he should have been asking was ‘how do I open the fuel tank’.


A client told me of a similar, recurring problem within their IT Project portfolio once. They had a resource allocation issue and it was costing them. Projects were either late, overbudget or simply failing to deliver and, each time a red warning flag appeared the project leaders would shuffle the team, re-allocate resources, reschedule the workflows … etc, etc.

And, in almost no time at all, a new problem would arise and they’d have to repeat the process of resource allocation! This happened time and again.

The problem they were trying to solve was how to deliver the IT Projects they had with the resources they had. Literally, the question they were asking themselves was ‘how do we best allocate the resources we have to deliver the projects in our portfolio?’.

One day, a bright spark had a eureka moment and realised they’d been asking the wrong question and instead asked ‘how do we best deliver the projects in our portfolio?’.

Just by removing the limiting part of their problem, the part that tied them to the resources they had, they opened up a solution space. They Googled “project management resources”, found Project Management as a Service (PMaaS) and called us. All of their projects are now fully resourced, on time, within budget and delivering all stakeholder expectations.

They asked the right question.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them,” said Albert Einstein.

If you want the Earth-shattering ideas you need to ask questions that don’t have the answer buried within!

Instead of loaded questions, ask neutral questions which foster proper reflection about the outcome you would like to achieve.

What Will It Mean To Solve The Problem?

Many project teams come unstuck by overthinking the physical aspects of the problem, instead, great solutions can come from reflecting on the more emotional side of the issue - the why rather than the what! When you define what solving the problem will mean, you open yourself up to new solutions.

Bernie Roth is a master at this. At the he challenges students to identify what will it mean to them when they have solved their problem.

My friend Gareth is a breakfast radio presenter and tells a story that falls into this category.

One morning, driving in to work Gareth found himself at the back of a long tailback caused by an accident. It was between exit slip roads and the road behind had quickly filled so reversing was not an option. A police officer confirmed that the road was closed a mile ahead and was unlikely to reopen for a couple of hours - meaning Gareth would miss the start of his show.

He sat in the driver’s seat trying to come up with a plan. How could he get his car free? Could he drive up the grass bank? Could he explain the situation and convince the officers to let him through?

It wasn’t until he thought about what getting free from the queue would mean that he came up with the solution. The problem wasn’t how to get the car-free but how to get himself to the studio for 6.02 am. The policeman had said the accident was a mile away and after that, the road was clear so Gareth called a taxi firm, explained the predicament to them and by the time he’d parked his car in a layby and jogged down the adjacent footpath a cab was waiting. He made it with five minutes to spare!

How often do we do this in IT Project Management? When you agonise over what a problem appears to be rather than establishing what the perfect outcome would look and feel like you close your mind to the groundbreaking solutions!

By the way, when he shared the story on air a listener called to say that, next time, he’d pick Gareth up in his helicopter. Now that would have been even better than the taxi ride.

So ask - what will it mean to have solved the problem and watch your mind light up with ideas!

Make The Problem Bigger (Run With Me)

My IT Project Manager pal Malc always says, “What’s the fun in solving a small challenge, expand it till you get to the problem worth solving!”

It’s tongue in cheek but I get where’s coming from – often you blindly run after what appears to be the problem and expend all your energy until the real challenge, the one that will make a real difference appears by which time you’re exhausted.

Malc says, “It’s like chasing a rattlesnake that’s bitten you so you can bite it back. Running will just spread the poison through your bloodstream faster and chances are you’ll chase it back to a cave full of the things.”

So, ask questions that are expansive in nature to zoom your thinking out!

What is the actual problem? What is the impact of solving/not solving it? Where does the problem fit contextually in the project/portfolio? What is the problem’s back story? What ideas have we come up with? What could the positive and negative implications of actioning these ideas be? What are the steps we’d need to take to action each of the solutions?

You get the idea!

Finally, Ask For Help!

All of the examples here have had one common thread. Each of the problem solvers asked for help, they didn’t go it alone.

Bernie asked the lady at the gas station, Gareth talked to the policeman and called a taxi, the project leader with the resource allocation issues reached out to the Project Management as a Service universe.

I’ve written these words many times … I believe that the solution to ANY IT Project challenge can be found in the PMaaS market and with every new challenge a range of new solutions are born. The PMaaS universe is just that – it is ever expanding!

And when you ask for help, make sure it’s the right question!

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