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Project Management Advice: How to ask (without being a pest)

Project Management Advice:  How to ask (without being a pest)

by Josh

Over the years, I’ve reached out to a lot of people for project management advice. I messed up quite a few times too, by doing it in such a way that turned them off, didn’t engage them, etc.

Recently I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts on general management, Manager Tools. They had a great episode on “how to ask for advice” that I’m riffing on here, adding some points of my own. Those guys and I disagree on very little when it comes to managing people. The topic resonated with me looking back on when I’ve asked for help from others, and I can see the points here (good and bad examples) in the email I receive too. The better you understand HOW to ask for help, the more success you’ll see.

No one owes you anything

This is a big one to remember. When you display humility and gratitude for the other person’s time and expertise IN ADVANCE you are much more likely to get a thoughtful response. Even if you we well-intentioned, email can especially come across as demanding and with some expectation of a response. Many busy people will be instantly turned off by this, and ignore or avoid you in the future.

Plus, be sure you understand that not everyone DOES have the time to answer all the email they get. If you don’t get a response right away, it’s possible that they will get back to you, just not immediately. Do not have the image in your head that this person is sitting in front of their email inbox waiting for a message from you.

This post is not a soapbox for me to complain about my lot in life, but I do want to make sure you are clear on these points so you will receive good results with me or anyone in the future who you might want to ask project management advice of.

That said, one of the things I don’t like about answering all the email I get is when someone is treating me as if they are my boss and I owe them an immediate response. There have been several occasions where I have received a second email from someone I don’t know within 24 hours asking “why didn’t you respond to me yet?” Because I’m a nice guy, I still respond to these emails as best I can, but it makes me feel like you’re taking advantage of my availability and willingness to help.

Be open-minded

When you get an answer, accept it. You can ask clarifying questions or other follow-up questions, but don’t argue with the advice. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes for a moment. Someone comes to you, asks for project management advice, you give them your opinion, and then they basically tell you that you are full of it.

Relationship building FAIL. Plus you probably didn’t learn jack squat.

Ask the question up front

This is important. The relevant history and background information needs to be there, but let them know what you are looking for advice on right away. I can’t remember how many times I had to re-read an entire email because I had no idea what the question was in the first place. As manager tools puts it, BLUF (“bottom line up front”).

Say thank you!

Someone has just taken their time and energy away from activities that benefit them or their organizations and set it aside for you. 1) BE thankful and then 2) express that gratitude for their awesome willingness to help!

I’ve always been blown away by most peoples’ willingness to help out complete strangers, even people who are very, very busy. I DIDN’T always make a point of thanking them though. Oh sure, I probably did the obligatory “thank you!” at the end of an email. But I’m talking about writing at least a sentence or two about how you recognize their time is valuable and let them know how much you appreciate what they’ve done for you.

On my soap box again for a minute, I do respond to a lot of email where I might spend up to 30 minutes reading a long email, thinking deeply about someone’s situation, type up a thoughtful response, only to never hear from them again. On the other hand, when I receive a nice thank you message, it lets me know my time was well-spent and my goal of helping someone was achieved.

Ask one question at a time

Even your mentor is just a regular person. Humans act more consistently and provide better results when tasked with one thing at a time. Focus is key for quality and output. So, don’t bog down your project management mentor with a barrage of questions. They may look at the long list and defer it, defer it, defer it until they’ve forgotten to answer it. Or they may decide they can’t spare the 3 hours it’s going to take to answer this email.

The best email I get asking for project management advice or career insight has a single question, up front right after a small introductory message, and then provides supporting background and detail that might be necessary for me to answer the question.

Ask a thoughtful question

Concise writing that still relays the intended message is hard. Short, sweet, and to the point is the way to go. Make sure you provide enough background and other information to allow them to answer your question. Do a Google search ahead of time, don’t ask questions that are easy to find and obvious. The best questions are those that tap into the mentor’s experience in some way that engages them, or is based on variables in your own life that just can’t be sorted out as a simple equation or yes/no answer.

Follow up

Let your mentor know how their advice helped you! People give advice because they LIKE to help you! One part of that is you letting them know how much you were helped by them, or by keeping them up to date on your progress in relation to the topic you sought help about.

In this realm, share your progress with job hunting, or something you were able to implement on a project, or perhaps a certification you completed. (This is one reason why I started PM Career Stories and PMP Stories, so I know I’m actually helping some people!)

What other comments do you have for people who are seeking project management advice? Do you disagree with anything I’ve said here? Leave a comment below, I thank you for your time and effort!

Leave a Comment

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Wim Lockefeer March 29, 2010 at 8:06 am

Josh –

Great advice ! And I didn’t even ask ;-)

Reply

Josh March 29, 2010 at 8:22 pm

Thanks! I was waiting for someone to tell me I missed something!

So everyone, anything else to add?

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Jennifer Bedell March 29, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Excellent article! I especially liked the mind-map diagrams as I could quickly see the main points under each heading. And, these tips are not strictly in the workplace. They can be used in all relationships, friendships and interactions with people.

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Josh Nankivel, BSc PM, PMP March 29, 2010 at 11:24 pm

Kareem Shaker tribute: Thanks Jennifer, I saw Kareem do this in a post a few months ago and loved it too. I told him right there and then that I was going to copy him. After all, it’s the sincerest form of flattery!

Very good point about how these are really universally applicable, they aren’t specific to project management or even work in general.

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Kareem April 1, 2010 at 10:04 am

Josh Thank you so much :) I feel flattered

The tips are quite general and are not applicable to project management domain only..

It’s irritating how people ask, get what they want and walk away without showing any appreciation, it’s also selfish, I have been receiving many questions that if the asker has googled for a minute he wouldn’t have asked in the first place

I also like the idea of the follow up , it would give the mentor a motivation impulse when he sees the fruitful results of his efforts

It’s so sad that many people ask and seek knowledge presuming people will instantaneously respond to their inquiries or everyone on the earth is obliged to answer their questions! You must have seen this on many discussion boards before..

P.S. I suggest uploading the map to xmind and embed it in the post, even better to make it downloadable :)

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Andrew Pfeiffer March 30, 2010 at 8:02 am

I must agree with Jennifer. This was just the thing I needed to get my head around some advice based issues in a personal relationship. I must thank you for the time you spent in creating this article and know I will be referencing it often.

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Josh April 1, 2010 at 6:48 am

Wow Andrew! Thanks for the awesome comment!

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Brad Blunt April 27, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Great article I would suggest adding a written thank you note as a nice touch based on the level of effort expended. Also, it would be appropriate to add a tag line of “Let me know if I can do anything for you” to your thank you note as a gesture of reciprocity.

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Josh Nankivel April 28, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Absolutely excellent points Brad! A hand-written note is always awesome if feasible, and the offer of reciprocity is great too. In fact, if you can offer some specific value before asking, even better! As an example, I have had people spend a lot of time and effort giving me feedback on some aspect of my website or newsletter, etc. which I found very helpful and thoughtful. It could even just be kudos or an example of how I helped them in some way.

When these people come back and ask me something later on, I remember them and am more likely to spend time with them.

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Sarah May 18, 2010 at 5:51 pm

I appreciate your words about humility. It seems we are lacking it when we expect the world to revolve around us and our needs.

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Josh April 5, 2011 at 6:03 am

Too right you are, Sarah!

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Monique February 13, 2011 at 3:53 pm

I really enjoyed reading this article. I am new to project management and found it disheartening at times to find that I was not getting responses to questions as I would have expected. On reflection I was not always asking the questions in the correct way.

So thanks for the advice, I look forward to putting it in to practise.
And yes – Love the diagrams!

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Josh April 5, 2011 at 6:04 am

I’m so glad Monique, thank you for the comment!

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shivika April 4, 2011 at 10:53 pm

Excellent piece of advice!! Amazing read! and I can think of so many situations and circumstances, outside the office, I could be apply it to… Many thanks :)

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Josh April 5, 2011 at 6:05 am

Great point Shivika, this applies to all kinds of situations….really anytime you are wanting to work with other people. If it’s not mutual benefit in some manner (even if that benefit is “feeling good about it”) it isn’t going to happen.

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Ron Rosenhead April 5, 2011 at 1:09 am

Josh, this is a great post. It covers for me most of the bases. Enjoyed the read and the ‘mind maps.’

I get a lot of students asking me for advice. I try and help BUT the key is that they are doing an assignment for a college or university and the question posed asks me to write it for them! Surprisingly, I do not comply! I send a polite note back saying so and guess what I never hear another word.

However, this is balanced by those who take the time out to say thank you – which does encourage me!

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Josh April 5, 2011 at 6:09 am

Ron, I have the exact same experience. In many cases the question is out of context too. It’s pretty easy to tell when someone typed up a question from their course work and sent it out.

I don’t mind spending some quality time teaching important concepts, but doing someone’s class assignment for them is neither fulfilling for me or helpful for them.

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Ron Rosenhead April 5, 2011 at 8:13 am

Interestingly, we had a phone call this morning asking for help with an assignment! Thankfully, I was not at the end of the ‘phone!

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Horacio August 18, 2011 at 9:05 am

Josh,

I enjoyed reading this article. I can easily apply it on my next meeting/email/conversation today! So kudos to you for creating Instant fit-for-all-ocassions advise.

I have a couple of questions that derive from the article:
1. What if the answer you were provided with posed another set of questions? How to hand this ‘new request’ to the same resource many times? At first you might be welcomed, but after a while you will still be a pest.
2. When is recommendable to ‘escalate’ your request to the participant’s boss or manager, if you re not getting enough attention?

Cheers!

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Josh August 18, 2011 at 6:39 pm

1) If you follow the other concepts, this shouldn’t be a problem. Most people are very willing to help out someone who does all the things I’ve written about here.
2) Never. This is a trust and relationship thing, not an expectation. Get better at being a mentee and move on to another mentor.

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Andy June 14, 2012 at 4:24 pm

Thank you very much!

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