Six questions to get into a project or new role fast

Getting into a new role or a new project requires you to understand the project fast so you can start adding value. Projects and organisations are different. Software and technologies are similar but different in subtle ways. Rarely does anyone have the complete picture and part of the way I add value is by creating that big picture. To achieve this I talk with all the stakeholders: sponsors, users, developers, testers. I read the source code and documentation, I look at backlogs and issues, and I run the software.

Over the years I have discovered six questions that help me get into a new role or a new project and start adding value fast. These I will share in this post.

Copyright Frederik Jensen 2023.

What problem are we trying to solve?

First step in solving a problem is identifying the problem. Ask yourself, what problem are we trying to solve by doing this project? What is the purpose, what are the goals? This may sound trivial, but if you don't get this right, you will fail.

I often find that stakeholders are not aligned on the purpose of the project and when this happens, they are often not aware that they are not aligned. The project has several goals and participants pick the one that speaks to them most. Secondary objectives are fine but priorities must be clear and adhered to when trade offs are needed. It can also happen that the purpose of the project is so broad that it can be anything. Projects go off track when the purpose and goals are bold, vague or open to interpretation.

A successful project solves a well defined problem and rallies stakeholders around a clear common goal.

How do we know that we have solved the problem?

Solving a problem within IT involves creating a delivery of software packages and documentation.

What are the deliveries and how do we know that they solve the problem? Who can sign off?

The scope of a large project is broken down into hundreds of user stories if not more. Where are we in understanding the detailed requirements and how far are we in meeting them? While you may not need to understand all requirements in detail, you need to know that they are there and that someone in the project does. The requirements must be SMART, especially: someone on the project must be able to test whether the current state of the deliveries meet them.

What are you working on right now?

‘Show me what you are working on right now’ is my gateway to the individual team members. During the first few weeks, I aim for 1:1 sessions with all key project contributors. By asking this simple question, I achieve three things:

  1. I get visual cues to understand what they say and I get to immediately ask clarifying questions. Common words can have different and very specific meanings within a project. Task, ticket, issue. Build, release, delivery. A conversation around a shared screen is a super fast way to learn.
  2. I get to see what tools they use and how they use them. I see what is important and where to find it. After the session I can ask to get access to documents and systems in a very specific way as I know what to ask for. This then enables me to look into source code, documentation, and backlogs on my own.
  3. I take out the excuse to prepare a big comprehensive session later that never happens. 

These sessions bring you up to speed in no time and ensure that you know what there is to know. I almost always end the session with the next question:

What should we be doing that we are not doing?

You would be surprised at how many organisations allocate smart people to do highly specialised tasks and then never ask them what they think needs doing.

It is such a simple thing to do. This question is not only a gold mine of ways to catapult the project towards success, it also reveals if the project team and stakeholders are aligned. Stakeholders will happily share their opinions about what should be done and will like you for asking and listening. This is true even in the most heated projects with agitated stakeholders, strong opinions, and open disagreement.

With great insight comes great responsibility though. Make sure to act on the information and to give credit where credit is due. If you for some reason cannot execute on a suggestion, get back to the person raising the idea with a clear explanation of why you do not act on it (right now).

What happens if we don’t do this?

Sometimes you come upon features or deliveries that are vague, fuzzy, difficult, time consuming, expensive or there are other reasons why you don’t want to take them on. Ask yourself: What happens if we don’t do this? Who will care and why?

If the answer is no one, congratulations, you have just cut down the scope and eliminated uncertainty. If the answer begins with ALL CAPS, congratulations, you have found out why it is important and who can help you get it done.

Or the functionality may be a very nice thing to do, it is just not related to the project you are working on right now. Make it explicit that it is someone else’s problem. 

How can I help?

‘How can I help’ or ‘What do you want me to do’ is my first question to the person who hires me. It helps us align on short term expectations. I also sometimes ask this question to other stakeholders, especially someone with strong opinions about the project. It is not always that project members see that yet another manager adds value, asking this question helps change that perception.

’How can I help’ is also the last question I answer, and I ask it to myself when I have a clear picture of the challenges specific to this setup. Throughout the years I have done everything in the software development process from requirements elicitation over design, development, test, documentation, and deployment. I can jump in and be hands on anywhere in the process. I can stay out of the way, create structure and transparency and just enjoy the engine sound of a smooth running project team trucking away on deliveries. So I make up my mind how and where to contribute.

  • Do I need to get deep into requirements clarification and testing?
  • Do I need to escalate and help resolve technical or organisational risks and issues?
  • Do I need to create structure, facilitate communication, and otherwise get out of the way?

I do whatever it takes to get the project done. Even fixing the coffee machine and taking out the trash.

I may come to the conclusion that the best thing I can do is to walk away. Either the project team is perfectly capable of completing the project without me. Or whatever it is that needs fixing is nothing that I can fix. The best way to help the project and organisation is then to communicate this clearly through appropriate channels.

Available for new assignments

I'm now available for new assignments. The role I'm looking for may be called Technical Project Manager, Business Analyst, Product Owner, or Solution Architect. I'm looking for a permanent position in the Stockholm area in a product delivery organisation. Reach out if you need a hands on problem solver with 20 years of experience to execute on your strategy.