Questions I like to ask in meetings

“I don’t understand”

The number one, most useful phrase to use in a meeting, when:

  1. I simply did not get something and it seems important
    Perhaps there is a missing context, perhaps it is something very unfamiliar or maybe I am missing something obvious. To be a full participant in the meeting, it is important to pause here and get clarity.
  2. I did not get something and suspect that a mistake has been made                  Someone that can explain their conclusions from “first principles” without obfuscation, generally has thought through a problem deeply. Asking for a proper explanation in a meeting, generally exposes mistakes in the analysis or a mistake that I have made (point 1). The analysis is often entirely sensible, but may lack full consideration of other aspects or links to other parts of the project.

People often avoid saying “I don’t understand” as they don’t want to appear silly; this form of bluffing can create a huge drag on the performance of a team. To this end, I consciously trying to create a positive culture around it, showing no embarrassment when expressing the fact I do not understand.

 

“Can we go back to the beginning?”

(1). I suspect the project/meeting is going off track and I want to go back and check assumptions.

A very common error, which relates to my previous post, is to assume that previous decisions are irrevocable and so choices are limited and forced.
For example, let’s say that in the early stages of a project, a decision was made to prefer option A over option B. This was an entirely sensible and pragmatic choice given the information at the time and a sensible amount of due diligence. Later in the project, we have hit a problem and we need to do something we do not like to progress.

Typically, a team would think the options are:

i. Cancel the project (often not feasible)

ii. Find some creative alternative to move forward (let’s try but cannot find one)

iii. Move ahead – even if it is unpalatable

Options i) and ii) may not be possible and option iii) can often have terrible results.
What has been missed is iv):

iv. Go back to a previous decision and see if changing that, allows us to go around the issue.

In my experience, project teams often really dislike this option, as it feels like they are going backwards and destroying previous work. In practice, much of the work is still relevant and progress can be made extremely quickly, ending up at a far better place.

 

(2). I suspect we are making the wrong sort of “plan”.
Again, this is related to my previous post. Discussion seems to have moved on to implementation, when we ought to be talking about “ideas and suggestions” (i.e. what we should be doing). You may often feel like you are fighting a very strong prevailing current of thought, especially when you have a team of competent implementers who may consider the creative phase as going backwards or just wasting time. To make this happen, I often have to be quite determined and utilise personal capital to persuade people we should spend our time this way.

If I think of when I have added the most value to a project, it is often because I helped us go back and re-evaluate previous decisions. When I think of the worst projects I have been involved with, a common feature was ploughing on when we actually needed to rethink our entire approach.


“Can I have a worked example?”

Words often don’t mean the same thing to everyone, they often mean different things in different contexts; it’s the great and terrible thing about words and it has enormous scope for confusion within a team. Examples are a great way to help explain a concept, especially ones with numbers in Excel!

  • Do the numbers add up? The critical test, often missed. We miss that we have double counted something, missed an item entirely or simply made a miscalculation.
  • Does it have logical coherence? With an example, it is far easier to see where there has been an assumption or missed step.
  • Did the words mean what I thought they meant? Examples can often show a very different meaning to the entire concept and its previous description.

 

Conclusion

These key questions all display some lack of comprehension, a desire to go back a stage and to clarify or rethink. I think these are most useful questions, because culturally we have been trained not to behave this way. Few children want to put up their hand in class and admit they do not understand, risking the contempt and ridicule of their peers for not keeping up. In my early career, I saw people progressing by projecting confidence, which only much later I understood to be a thin veneer. It takes courage to behave this way in a meeting – but perhaps when someone else does you can support them because you understand why it is so important.

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