Several times in my career I’ve had to give depositions and testimony in legal cases, mostly patent related, and I learned some lessons in getting ready for and during these cases that are directly applicable to project/program management. These include determining the right questions to ask to get the information you really want, and “reading” the answers and body language of the people responding to these questions.
In preparation for giving depositions our attorneys told us repeatedly that when a question is asked, you should answer the question honestly but only answer specifically what has been asked. The example they gave, which has stuck with me to this day, is that if their attorney asks you if you know what time it is, and you do, the proper response is, “Yes.” You are not under any circumstances to respond, “The time is 3:12 PM”. In giving this response you are going well beyond the question asked, and you are not to do this. This has broad application to the situation above, where people may honestly answer your question, but where you haven’t really asked the right question. I’ll expand on this shortly.
Further, our attorneys stated that, when asked questions, you must be able to pass the red face test. What this means is that you must be able to answer the questions responsibly without your face turning red. Most people who try to lie, or stretch the truth, or move out of their comfort zone tend to get a bit red faced, which indicates to the opposing attorneys that they should challenge the answers being given or statements being made to try to sort out the real truth from what is being said. Passing the red face test is always important for project/program development team members, and again means you need to ask the right questions, and then properly follow up on those questions. It’s not that you are trying to “interrogate” your people, but you need to gather the real facts if you are to get things back on track.
There are a wide range of people in any work environment who respond to problems and questions in different ways. What follows is just a brief assortment of some of the types of people you may encounter and need to deal with effectively.
Honest Hard-Working Folks: I strongly believe that these are the people who constitute the great majority in most organizations. These are people who work hard, do everything possible to deliver on their commitments, state early and often when problems arise so that there are no surprises, and honestly let people know what is going on and why, whether favorable or unfavorable (see also Herding Cats 5: Solid Citizen, Valued Expert & Rising Star). You usually know instinctively who these people are. Such people easily pass the red face test because there is nothing in their actions or their approach or their responses that would ever cause their face to turn red. These are the people who say what they mean, mean what they say, and do what they say they’ll do (see Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, and Do What You Say You’ll Do!). These people are the heart and soul of every organization and can be counted on to do the right thing every time. Ask your questions and verify their answers, but unless proven otherwise, you can generally accept their answers as honest and complete.
“Present” Voters: These are people who never really step up to the plate and take responsibility for their work or “do something” either pro or con. They try to stay under the radar by voting "present” and may not even know whether or not they’re a source of problems. They simply don’t want to be noticed or take a stand on anything or to really be part of the team (see “The ‘Wally’” in Herding Cats 4 – "Wally" & Prima Donna, and Looking Down versus Looking Up). You need to develop questions that prevent the option of voting "present” and require them to commit to clear answers. Ask questions that probe directly what the “present” voters have personally done and specifically where their work stands. Do not accept vague answers or partial responses. Get confirmation from others about the nature and completeness of their work.
Buck Passers: These are people who believe they are never to blame for any problems; it is always somebody else’s fault. They may not be able to successfully do what they've committed to do, but they’re never at a lack for creative excuses as to why it’s not their fault. You need to develop questions that strip off the opportunity to pass the buck and their attempts to blame others. As with the “present” voters, ask questions that probe directly what they have done and specifically where their work stands. Do not accept their attempt to pass the buck and blame others, and let them know you will not accept their excuses. When they accepted their assignments they knew others would be involved and that it was their responsibility to do what they said they’d do without excuses.
“90% Done” Claimers: These are people who, when you ask where their part of the project or program stands, will tell you it’s “90% done”. They often truly believe this, but unfortunately, what this often means is there is still 90% left to do. It generally means they have done “some” work but by no means "all" of the work. For example, in software development, they may have done the very basic functionality associated with design or coding, but not all of the error path considerations, failure analysis, memory leak analysis, and the many, many other elements of design that are essential to any real product or program development. Their claims of being “90% done” also tend to leave out the considerable time needed to unit test (and then correct and re-test), integrate (and then correct and re-integrate), integration test (and then correct and re-test), system test (and then correct and re-test), etc. Also keep in mind that many people who may claim they are “100% done” are really “90% done” claimers; they just don’t know it. Your questions to these people must get at the heart of what they've really accomplished and how complete what they've done really is. Ask them to describe the remaining work. Make sure they understand what “done” really means and get a true assessment of where their work stands given this. Verify with others the true state of their work.
Range Chickens**: These are people who know they are in trouble in meeting their commitments, but who hold back admitting it in hopes that others will admit their problems first, thereby alleviating themselves of having to admit they’re having problems. By not admitting their difficulties these people’s problems are the hidden rocks just below the surface of the water the project/program is gliding over. You may solve the problems you do uncover only to crash and burn on the undiscovered problems left by the Range Chickens. Range Chicken behavior can become contagious (why be the only one to speak up when everyone else is keeping quiet and getting away with it), so you need to be on guard for this. Your questions need to probe diligently to uncover the Range Chickens’ problems. You need to develop questions that force them to expose the problems they are having; for example, where would they stand if everyone else was fully ready to go? You can’t let them escape scrutiny or you will be doomed without knowing it.
False Evidence Planters: These are people who avoid blame for problems by planting false evidence of blame on others (see also “The Cheshire Cat” in Herding Cats 6: Complainer/Whiner, Eternal Optimist, Gossip, Cheshire Cat, Loner, Credit Taker/Thief & A$$hole). They are especially pernicious in that they are not only the real source of many problems, but they divert your efforts to find the real problems with false trails and false blame. Their existence generally becomes evident when questioning others inevitably leads to the conclusion that disinformation is being spread; that what is supposed to be wrong with one person’s work is not only not wrong, but not even possible to be wrong. Eventually, through the questioning of them and many others, it will become evident that false evidence planters are at work, and who they are. Your ultimate questioning of the false evidence planters should be targeted at understanding why they attempted to plant false evidence, and whether such lowlifes have any redeeming values to keep them around for any reason. You should get them off your team (and out of the company) at the earliest point possible. Trust is a critical element of any team, and liars (see below) and false evidence planters undermine that trust and cannot be allowed to remain (see also Trust Me, I’m Not Like The Others!).
Liars: Some people are able to lie or bend the truth with impunity and with no “tells” that indicate they are not being entirely truthful; they are the exception rather than the norm, but spotting them can be difficult, and the damage they can do can be unrecoverable. Liars typically lie in areas well beyond their project or program work, and tend to be uncovered by them forgetting their trail of lies to the point where their lies become unsupportable. Your questions should be directed to uncovering the fact that they are liars, and, once proven, getting them out of your organization, or, preferably, out of the company. As with the false evidence planters, they cannot be trusted, and they undermine the critical trust that is essential in an effective organization.
Others: Of course, there are an abundance of other types of people who can intentionally or unintentionally hide or cover up problems that may be the primary, secondary, or other sources of problems that may stymie the success of your project or program. You must ferret out all such sources and causes of failure if your project or program is to succeed.
So how do you ask the right questions? How do you determine what the right questions are? You need to ask questions that will truly address what you are trying to learn. You’re working to learn what the real problems are and where those problems exist and what needs to be done to address and correct them (see also When Bad Things Happen to Good Projects). Your questions need to get to the heart of these issues and need to fully probe the people you are questioning.
First, let them know that you really need their help and that you need them to answer your questions honestly and fully. Work to establish trust. People typically don’t want to mislead, but neither do they want to disappoint or point fingers at themselves or others. So they’ll find ways to reply to the questions without responding to the issues. Let them know you are not trying to attack anyone, but that you need to understand the root causes of the problems if corrective actions are to be taken to get the project or program back on track. If you’re trying to ascertain where things stand – for example, what is the real state of a project – ask the right questions, not ones that can be easily avoided. In other words, don’t ask, “How is the project going?” The answer will likely be, “Fine.” Instead ask, “Will you meet your next milestone (specifying what that milestone is) on a specific date?” and, if not, why? You can generally learn most by asking open questions (where you don’t restrict the scope of the answers) to honest people, and closed questions (where you do restrict the scope of the answers) to devious people. Stay specific with your questions but allow the person the opportunity to expand on their answers to give their opinions of where problems may exist and why. These responses can help direct follow-up questions and identify others to question.
During your questioning, try to determine the type of person you’re talking to. Ask some straightforward questions with clear expected answers and see if they have normal responses and whether they answer the questions you asked with specificity, or give answers that are not really responsive to what you were asking. Also check their body language to see if they seem comfortable or uncomfortable in responding. Are they passing the red face test? If their answers are responsive and their body language seems comfortable (and without a red face), then move on to more questions, and keep looking for responsive answers and comfortable body language. If their answers are non-responsive and/or their body language shows discomfort (or a red face), then press to get responsive answers and refuse to accept non-responsive answers. When you see body language discomfort (including a red face), then press in to uncover the cause of the non-responses and the discomfort. Expose the root causes of problems, and identify the types of people involved in the project or program.
Again, your intent is to determine where the project or program stands and what needs to be done to get it back on track. You need facts to make this happen. Asking the right questions and looking for people who pass the red face test can most directly point you to the right way to understand and resolve the problems that need to be addressed.
An additional benefit is learning who the people really are, and who can most or least be trusted. Trust is absolutely essential and plays a central role in effective project management. If the underlying relationships are not reliable, then no project or program forecasts can be reliable. In addition, trust greatly enhances the efficiency of the organization and enables them to excel (see also Pigasus – When Pigs Fly!).
People who can be most trusted can become valuable and reliable sources of information and can potentially be groomed for further advancement in the company. Work to identify, and possibly even reward, those who stand up and admit that they are one of the sources of problems, especially if they propose solutions on what they will do to get the project or program back on track. Note those who simply report problems without any potential solutions (see also “Whiners” in Are You Part of the Solution, or Part of the Problem?). People who can be least trusted can be put on notice, perhaps be given opportunities to shape up, or be positioned to be moved out of the organization in an appropriate timeframe.
Of course, better project management methods can reduce the need for “red face” questioning after the fact. It is always better to prevent problems than to have to re-mediate, make excuses, or provide explanations. Better tracking of shorter intervals can let you know where things stand and where problems are developing well before things get out of hand. This is discussed prominently in project management literature and will be addressed in some future blog posts. Still, critical questioning can be an essential tool to avoid being surprised, and determining whether people can pass the red face test can help in that effort.
** [Note: The suggestion of the “Range Chicken” category and the essential role of trust in project management comes from my friend Lee Beaumont (see prior articles, The Schedule Estimate Extortion Game and Start Spreading The News!), and also see Lee’s Range Chicken history and description. and his discussion on Trust.]