Questions for project audits – part one

I was talking to a colleague recently and promised to share some of the questions I ask when auditing a project (or taking one over).

My first question is generally “what is the project about?” But that generally leads to a vague answer.  So I use my “question compass”:

My question compass

These are the questions I use to get a basic orientation when analyzing just about anything.  By way of explanation though, I don’t always use the exact wording shown.

When asking “what do you mean” I use a technique that sounds really simple and is surprisingly effective – the “nouns and verbs” technique.

I listen for a noun in a sentence and then ask “what do you mean by ‘noun’?”.  When I get a response I ask about one of the verbs in the response “How do people currently ‘verb’?” or “How do you envision people will ‘verb'”.

I keep doing this for a little while even if I think I know what people mean because it is amazing how often it clarifies my understanding.  Then I pick one of the things the person said and ask “why are we doing this project?”.

I do use the famous 5-whys technique to probe more deeply (ie ask why several times) but I also add the question “why else?”.

I was once told that we do things for two reasons – the right reason (the one we tell people) and the real reason.  I think it is a quote from someone famous.  But it certainly clarifies my thinking when I ask this question.

My next question is “Is that true?” and I ask this one in a number of ways:

  • What would the team say the purpose is if I asked them?
  • Do all the steering committee share the same understanding?
  • How do you know that is true?  How do others know?
  • How would you know if that was not the case? (my favourite question).

Almost there – but I still have one last question – “So what?”.  Like asking if something is true, asking so what can seem a bit blunt.  So I ask it in a couple of different ways:

  • What impact is that having?
  • What would happen if we didn’t do it?
  • What would the impact be over the long term if we don’t do it?
  • What will happen if we do it?  What else will happen? What won’t happen?
  • What are you hoping won’t happen if we do that?
  • What will the team/customer say when it happens?

After these questions I generally at least have some idea of what is going on – which is often the best place to start.

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About James King
I am a consultant who specialises in helping IT and project teams to improve their delivery capability through improvements to processes, individual capability and leadership capability. I live in Sydney with my wife and daughter and have no real hobbies beyond the usual boring ones of reading, writing and watching tv.

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