Most crises are of the frog variety rather than the Godzilla. They’re small issues that only become a crisis because no one was paying attention or because you waited too long to correct the situation. They happen because we’re human, and we’re prone to rationalizing, avoiding, and putting a positive spin on things. But frogs are preventable – easily preventable! – if you know how to cut through all of that and spot them. Twenty years ago a friend passed on four questions which he said were all that was needed to know the true status of any project. The questions are simple:

  1. How are you doing? 
  2. How do you know? 
  3. Are you improving? 
  4. How do you know? 

As I have used these questions myself, I have discovered they get more powerful as you progress though them.

How are you doing?

Every progress review I’ve ever participated in started with this question in one form or another. It’s really the basis for all progress reports. As such, it has really lost much informational usefulness – much like a question that every student knows will be on the exam. Usually, you get gut reactions to this question because anything else is work.  Everyone knows that it will be asked and they have figured out how to answer it so as to make the situation look as good as possible. When someone downplays the negative or puts a positive spin on bad news, it should always set trigger warning bells in your head.  For example, recently a CEO announced layoffs by telling the people being let go that “You get to start your new job search today!” Sure, it may be true, but it’s not an accurate representation of the situation. Listen to not only what they’re saying, but how they say it – and what they aren’t saying.

How do you know?

Once you move to the second question, you immediately can start evaluating the true status of a project. Because at this point you are asking for data. And I mean real data – answers that boil down to“I think” or “I feel” won’t cut it. You are asking for the other person to give quantitative justification of their answer to the first question.

Now a lot of people don’t like numbers. Maybe they hated math in high school, or think it’s too hard, or they don’t have time for that stuff, or they “have people to do that” for them. But usually, all of the reasons for disliking numbers boil down to “There’s less wiggle room.” It’s much easier to dodge criticism and temporarily avoid negative consequences if you stick to subjective “I feel” or “In my experience” statements.  These people usually just spout out the numbers they are familiar without any understanding of what those numbers mean. You’ve seen this before. It’s the owner of a small business that just looks at the daily balance in the checking account without looking where the money is coming from or going to. It’s the magazine owner that sees great ad revenue without understanding that their sales staff has to keep finding new advertisers because the old and current advertisers are leaving. It’s the webmaster who only reports total website visits without looking into how many were bogus, 2-second hits. In quality management, we call this “management by numbers alone,” and it always indicates a superficial understanding of the situation. Often, it also indicates that the person is aware of problems, but scared to dig deeper and actually confront them. It’s the business equivalent of sticking their head in the sand. If someone gives you quick numbers, think hard about what those numbers really mean. Do those numbers REALLY say what they claim they say? And does that person really understand what those numbers mean? Do you?

Are you improving?

Now we move into unfamiliar territory – because few managers, investors, or leaders ever ask this question. This question is all about whether we are getting smarter about doing what we do. No process is ever as good as it could be – but we frequently are satisfied to leave well enough alone as long as no one complains. In this internet-connected, hyper-velocity business world, if we are not learning and getting better, then someone else is and they will have our customers in short order. This is the reason that Meredith and I both strongly endorse – and use – quality principles and tools in our work. It is the only sure way to make sure that you are improving your processes.

How do you know?

Again, you are asking for quantitative justification of the answer(s) to the previous question. And it again forces the use of data. All the same applies as before.

Now this approach to progress reviews works on any project, small or complex, because the questions are universal. I like this approach because it has the added advantage of forcing everyone involved to be transparent: Figures don’t lie – but liars often figure. When I found that someone can’t or won’t  answer the second and fourth questions with data, I immediately know that there are management weaknesses present – and that is where I apply extra attention.

Four simple questions – but powerful tools for identifying problem areas. And they are great for preventing the frogs from overrunning the palace.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.