In program and project management, likely in all areas of leadership and management, there are three key questions to ask. This is especially true when coming in as a new project manager, from outside, or as a turn-around agent. There are of course other records and documents that should be reviewed and placed into context with these three questions. Ask these questions in a one-on-one situation, if at all possible, and state at the beginning that these conversations are confidential, and outcomes are non-attributional. Simply listening to what people have to say (use active listening) expresses the courtesy of people’s time and attention and reinforces their value. Trust is the essential element to get honest feedback and is the beginning of the development of strong and trusting relationships which is the “grease” that will help everything else work well. If these conversations cannot be done one-on-one, then do these in small groups of perhaps 5-15. More than five reduces the intimacy of the conversation and tends to limit honest feedback so keep the groups as small as possible. In an effort to obtain honest feedback that people are not comfortable providing in a group, tell the group that you will stay behind for up to an hour if someone wants a more private conversation. Of course, maintain an “open door policy” as well. Typically, I would limit this feedback to three topics or responses in the interest of time. While establishing this feedback in this manner is key at the beginning, it should be conducted periodically throughout the life of the program, project, enterprise, or organization. It is a key to good leadership and the feedback that can be obtained is literally more valuable than gold.

In my experience, these questions should be asked of a cross-section of all stakeholders within a program or project. This might include subordinates, contemporaries, superiors, external partners and stakeholders, clients, and past team members such as prior program or project managers. This feedback is the “breakfast of champions” if you listen. You will also likely begin to identify trends and alignment of issues that will help to prioritize them.

The program or project manager should also filter this feedback through his or her own experience as all feedback is not necessarily meaningful, productive, or actionable. Still, keep this feedback as it is not always actionable or it may be actionable in the near-term, long-term, or as things change. In the end, the program or project manager must assess the feedback, prioritize it, and determine next steps. Next steps might include further analysis, integration into existing plans, development of new plans, or placing the feedback on-hold with no current action necessary or desired. Of course, there are many other options. The key throughout is that the program or project manager acknowledge their appreciation for this feedback, thank people for their feedback, reinforce their commitment to honor the confidentiality and non-attribution of the feedback, and to put the feedback into action as appropriate.

So, what are these questions?

Question 1. What’s going well?

This is not only a key question but a good ice breaker as there is little concern or risk in responding to this honestly.

Question 2. What’s not going well?

This is an essential question to understand what issues, challenges, or problems exist. The program or project manager, will as previously stated, need to assess this feedback to identify trends, alignment, and next steps. Getting honest feedback to this question is dependent on the level of trust that exists with the program or project manager. Without trust, it is not likely that meaningful feedback will be given. Regardless, utilize active listening and mutual respect, as you would with any other conversation. If nothing else, it is likely the people you are engaging will appreciate you asking the question, the courtesy of their time, and of your listening to what they have to say. It will be the beginning of building stronger relationships.

Question 3. How can I help?

This is perhaps the most pointed and key question as this is an opportunity for people to guide the program or project manager to what is the highest priority for their time or what is most urgently needed. If you listen, people will tell you what you need to do. Of course, you need to put this in the context of your own experience.

At the end of each of these one-on-one or small group conversations, thank people for their time and feedback.

So, why are these questions important? There are probably many reasons, but I will assert two. First, a program or project manager will not likely find everything they need to know in reports or documents and not everything that is important can be measured. Morale and other areas are examples of the latter. After all, we are a society and organizations of people, the most valuable asset of any program or project that a manager has. Second, this feedback will likely save time as you proactively seek the highest priority issues that you can impact. In general, I believe there is a 60-90 day window for many program or project managers, and other large organization leaders, to have their biggest impact. In this period, you are a set of new eyes, bringing new objectivity where it is likely needed. And, with an opportunity to build that critical trust and strong relationships that helps everything else work well.