Why you should ask stupid questions

I have already done many projects, either with YUHIRO or third party companies. What I have always encountered was that too many times projects get stuck, because of simple misunderstandings. These misunderstandings can be avoided by following a few simple techniques. In the following I write a little bit about how requirements can be gathered correctly during projects, especially by asking seemingly stupid questions 🙂

Overcoming Language barriers

Oftentimes many people are involved in projects which are not native speakers. Also we, here in India, are not native speakers, even though we wish to be perceived as such. Many developers will have difficulties understanding the requirements which are given in English, also because the clients themselves might not be native English speakers. Just look at Germany, Italy, France and Sweden for an example.

So therefore we have a bunch of people 🙂 trying to communicate in a language which is actually not their first language. That in itself poses a lot of misunderstandings.

Here it is always advisable to check, whether they mean the same thing with a given term.

Let’s take for example the term CRM. Indians in the IT industry tend to use this abbreviation a lot. It’s so common that they believe that everyone around the world must know what CRM stands for. The reality looks different. More than 95 % do not know what CRM means. The rest of the 5 percent (or less) people who know the full form, have a different knowledge or opinion about what a CRM is.

So therefore, questions should be asked like:

  • What do you mean by CRM?
  • Do you mean Customer Relationship Management as the full form?
  • What is the purpose of this CRM system?
  • How is it used in your country?
  • What processes are covered by it?

To understand this example a little bit better, let’s check the meaning of CRM in Germany and in India. In India a CRM system is software, with which customer data can be stored and retrieved. Sometimes it also includes a system which customers itself can use to enter data.

In Germany, in most cases, CRM refers to a software module which handles marketing and sales related activities. The marketing department would enter their activities into this system and leads which are subsequently created by it, will be handed over via the CRM to the sales department.

Asking the same questions over and over again

Most cultures have a tendency to answer questions very shortly. Oftentimes the conversational partner thinks that the opposite person thinks the same way as he or she does and leaves out a lot of information. This can sometimes work if the two persons speaking have the same cultural background.

An example: Let’s suppose a German client would speak to a German sales person. He says: “This CRM system is used for a Café chain, which we operate only in EU countries”

This sentence might be enough to explain even more about the project, because the sales person is from the same cultural background as the client.

An Indian project manager might understand from the same thing, something completely or partially different. For example are the EU countries only a few countries, which belong to the European Union and therefore does not mean the whole of Europe, which would include countries like Switzerland and other countries as well. For an IT Project this would have huge implications. Let’s suppose the developers would have programmed the system in such a way that it handles all EU countries as European countries. Only this would be enough to bring this project into big troubles.

Also in an Indian context a “Café” might be something completely different than what can be imagined how it actually is in Europe. And when the CRM is added to this (see example above in the article) then the confusion is complete.

Here it makes sense to ask the same question over and over again. Usually the client will then try to answer the question more elaborately and in more detail. Also, in my experience, every time the client answers the same question, there will be a slight variation, which might be crucial to understanding the project.

Another real life example: There is a project, where the client always said “The system does not work” or “The system is crashing”.

When we started asking the client the same question over and over again “Which system is not working?”. Then he started, only after the third or fourth time of asking this same question, to give a detailed description of what was actually not working. Through this we found out, that the system was not working on certain devices and certain operating system versions. And we also found out that the system was indeed working on some devices properly. This is crucial information, which is needed to bring the project to a success.

Asking more than obvious questions

We all know this feeling. We know that this question which we have in mind is a very obvious one, and the answer should be, according to our feeling, also an obvious one. Therefore we, most of the times, refrain from asking those questions.

Do us all a favor – and ask those questions 🙂

You will be wondering how many times you will get a not so obvious answer.

For example: We had one HTML5 project. Usually these types of projects are also supporting web-browsers on desktops, apart from the various browsers on mobile phones. In this project we assumed in the beginning, that desktop browsers need to be supported in the final version. But when we asked the client, he replied that it would not be necessary to support desktop browsers, as the application will be mainly used by Smartphone users. Even though it’s a simple question and a simple answer, it definitely helped to reduce the development time.

Downright stupid questions

A first step to successful projects would be to learn to ask downright or very stupid questions. This would lower the barrier for asking questions in general. Instead of thinking about, whether to ask a question or not, just ask them. Ask them several times and also with slight variations. The only thing which can happen is that you will either learn more about the project or you will be getting a confirmation on what you think you have understood, is also what the client was thinking about.

There is no need to worry, that the client will think, that the person who is asking the question is somewhat shallow. On the other hand, these questions will ensure project success and that is what any company is measured upon.

Interesting links:
Ask dumb questions
How to do it without sounding stupid

Pictures: Flickr.com/ Levent-Levi/ Feral78

The author: Sascha Thattil works at YUHIRO and supports companies from Germany to establish software teams in India. YUHIRO a German-Indian IT company, which provides software developers for IT companies, agencies and IT departments.

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