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Four important questions you should ask at work

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Have you ever experienced something similar to the following scenario?

Supervisor:  “Hi Jacqui.  We need a brief written right away on the issue you’ve been working on.  Can you get onto that right away?”

Me:  “Yeah, sure”.  Supervisor walks away.

I sit down at my keyboard, and I realise that I really have no idea what my boss wants.  S/he is always so busy that I never feel that I can bother him/her with questions.  I can’t go back into his/her office and ask a whole lot of questions now…  And so I commence a significant period of procrastination because I’m really unsure of exactly what I am supposed to be doing.  Then I put together something based on my best guess, and it comes back for a significant number of redrafts…

Does this ever happen to you?  I know this has happened to me frequently in the past, sometimes happens to me now, and is certain to happen again in my future.

I had a coaching client the other day who said he often experienced this feeling.  He had come up with a set of really effective and simple questions that he pulled out on these occasions.  If his supervisor delegated a task, he had the following questions ready:

What do I need to do?”  Generally this is covered by a supervisor, and is usually the focus of what they say.  But sometimes you need to ask a couple of ‘what’ questions – what template?  What format?  What is the page limit?

When is it needed?”  Often everything delegated by a supervisor can seem urgent, and it makes it difficult to prioritise.  Sometimes they haven’t thought about when they need it.  By asking “when”, you can confirm how to prioritise it against everything else on your plate.  If it is needed by the end of the day, then you can tell your supervisor the implications – eg “That means I won’t be able to get the monthly report statistics done today – is that okay?”

Who is it for?”  The difference between a brief for your supervisor, for the Secretary or Chief Executive of your organisation, for the Minister, for Board papers can all be very different – in format, in content, in the level of detail and even in the level of effort you put in.

Why?”  It may be best to rephrase this one into something slightly less confronting – something like “What is the purpose of the brief?” may be better.  For instance, if the brief is for the Minister, then the purposes can vary widely.  Is it just for information, is it to brief the Minister for an interview, for a parliamentary process of some sort, for a meeting, to get her agreement to a certain line of action or a certain policy?  Again, the reason for the task will have a great impact on how you go about it.

You can see how these four simple questions – “What, When, Who and Why”  can provide you with a wealth of information that is vital to you doing the best job possible first time, rather than guessing and having it come back for redrafts again and again.

And the great thing about this method is that it is so simple, and is a really short list to keep in your head, so that when your boss is in front of you, you can at least get the basics covered very quickly.

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One Response to Four important questions you should ask at work

Trish says: 5 November, 2012 at 5:45 pm

This is great advice. I think a lot of people simply don’t feel confident enough to negotiate these kinds of things with their boss; they just say “yes! right away!” and cross their fingers that they will be able to get it done on time. I think this also happens with people taking on work that they don’t have the skills to do. It’s one thing to load your plate up with lots of work, it’s quite another to say ‘yes’ to a job that you might not really know how to do. By all means take the opportunity, this is how we learn new skills, but be up-front with your boss/colleagues about your abilities as well as time constraints, and as soon as you start to feel like you’re going under, ask for help. There’s no shame in admitting that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.

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