6 Questions That Break Down Problems Faster

As a Program Manager, you’ll interact with anyone and everyone in your company. You spend your days forging and reforging alliances and partnerships. Within all of these conversations, it all boils down to what we PgMs do best--solve problems. That’s why we call ourselves Unblockers, right? Your colleagues and other teams will partner with you to help solve problems. That’s when you begin to unblock. When engaging in conversations with other teams or colleagues, they’ll present their obstacles and challenges. It’s important to stay thoughtful and tactfully expose their problems without sound abrasive or insensitive. Remember, they’re coming to you for help or want to forge a new partnership. Your time is valuable and so is theirs so curating their wants and needs quickly is critical. Let’s go over six questions that break down problems in a quick thoughtful way.

Not Enough Detail?

How do you do that today?

So your morning is off to a good start. You have your coffee in hand and you stroll on over to your first meeting of the day. It starts simply enough, but as the stakeholders continue to talk, you realize that their wants and needs are somewhat unclear. To dive deeper, you focus on one of their talking points and humbly ask, “How do you do that today?” This question forces the user to expand on single point of their idea.

What other challenges do you run into today?

When stakeholders describe their current state, they often elaborate on only a subset of the current obstacles. Stakeholders may only focus or divulge on the most pressing problems. Asking this question ensures that additional light is shed on smaller problems that may be useful to solve. In addition, it gives an additional opportunity for the stakeholder to provide a complete current state of the problem.

What’s your use-case?

This one is a personal favorite of the Unblockers. Many times the stakeholder may be focused on the current solutions and ideas. Along the way, their original intended purpose may have been forced out of scope or become unclear. Using this question forces the stakeholder to go back to their original intended solution. It’s a more tactful way of asking, “Why do you do that?”

Who else is affected by this?

It’s very easy for individuals to be mired in the problems that affect only their team and the immediate teams around theirs. Many times, asking this question inspires a level of empathy that otherwise would have been ignored or forgotten. This question allows the stakeholder to take a step back and think outside of their own scope. It’s very possible there are other teams affected downstream. Even more interesting is the prospect of earlier teams causing the challenges of the current stakeholders earlier upstream. The best case scenario is if the stakeholder comes to this conclusion themselves. Remember, as a PgM, you also provide alternative perspectives of challenges and obstacles.

How was this done previously?

Sometimes, just sometimes, the stakeholder’s previous method of doing something can yield interesting information. In these situations, it doesn’t hurt to ask, “How was this done previously?” You may stumble upon more nuanced factors or variables that helped create the current situation. This question is typically more useful for the PgM and doesn’t provide much of an opportunity for stakeholders. They will probably be too involved in their current problem anyway.

Too Much Detail?

Why do you do that today?

This one is very similar to the “Use-case” question but comes at a more direct angle. Say you’re running a meeting and the stakeholders involved are talking at length. They go on and on and continue to add additional details about why a specific process or tool doesn’t work. As you’re taking notes, you realize, you’re lost. The stakeholders have given you too much information. It’s time to pull them back and refine their idea. There are a plethora of details and they may never admit it, but they’re probably more lost than you are.

Focus on a single point in their explanation and ask them, “Why do you do that today?” It forces the stakeholder to take a step back, and reflect. It asks them to reevaluate if what they want is the correct answer, or if there’s an alternative approach. It might catch them off guard and they may respond defensively so be tactful about this question.

Get out there and unblock!

Program managers are the ultimate unblockers. They skillfully navigate conversations and tactfully come to thoughtful action items. One of the most important tools they have is the ability to distill problems and challenges into easily understood action items. These questions are just some of the many variations that PgMs employ to get the job done as an Unblocker.