Improving ROI of your time: 18 simple questions you should keep asking

Your time is precious. Life is too short. Fortunately, there is something you do to dramatically improve return on your time.

"Of course, I can help you with your IT strategy," I said to a caller. "Since you mentioned that this is urgent, can you meet for an hour? The next week? The week after? Well, when will you have the time?"

No organization or individual has unlimited resources, and we certainly cannot buy more time, no matter how much we are prepared to pay. Yet the calendars of executives, managers, and professionals are booked solid with activities that don't belong there in the first place: phone calls to "touch base," meetings "to be in the loop," projects that shouldn't have started in the first place. With the "wrong" items taking up all the space, there is no way for the "right" things to get the attention they deserve.

Your time is precious. Life is too short. Fortunately, there is something you can do to dramatically improve return on your time. I would like to share with you a handful of simple questions you should be asking in a variety of business situations. Is this a comprehensive list? Of course not, but I am being respectful of your time.

On receiving a proposal or request to initiate an action or project -- anything that will require investment of time from you or your team

You don't want to spend any time on half-baked ideas, projects that are misguided or that generate no value, or complex solutions to simple problems.

1. Why? The old consulting technique of posing this question five times in a row might at times annoy the other party. That should not matter to you as much as the fact that you have just gotten to the bottom of an obscure problem. 2. What other alternatives did we consider? People forever jump to solutions before the problem at hand is well understood. IT is notorious at throwing complex technology and processes at simple issues. Challenge yourself and others to look at all potential solutions. 3. How does it align with our strategy/values/key priorities? Projects are often initiated for the wrong reasons, such as sudden availability of funding or someone's flight of fancy. Nip them in the bud. 4. Why is this important at this time? Timing is everything, as the old adage goes. Why now? 5. How would you like me to be involved going forward? This is how you save yourself from being dragged into endless meetings. Let the other party state their preference, and if it does not match your expectations, offer an alternative that would meet the same objectives at a lesser cost to you. 6. What would be the best outcome from your perspective? This is one of the best questions to ask a client or a sponsor of a project. Getting them to state it explicitly will enable you and your people to concentrate on the right things. Additionally, you will be able to measure progress toward what is considered to be a success. 7. Who else needs to be consulted before we proceed? I have seen numerous projects initiated on the whim of a self-appointed sponsor, just to be stopped soon thereafter by someone with more clout within the organization. The effort of all participants could have been directed to a more worthy cause. 8. Is there business on the table? As an IT leader, you often get offers to collaborate, to get together to participate in a committee, and so on. These are potentially huge time wasters. Asking a polite but pointed question helps to protect you from the time vampires. In a meeting - planning, problem solving, group decision making

The typical problem here is the inefficiency due to lack of facilitation skills, deficiency of the process, or the obscure objective. I have no patience for these things and neither should you.

9. How do we know that? What evidence do we have? You want to hear objective facts. Massive projects are launched based on attribution bias, and countless hours are spent on solutions to problems that don't exist. You don't want to be a part of that. 10. Are we disagreeing on the goal or on the method of implementation? This is the best question I know to get control of a disagreement. You will find that it is the implementation that is a problem, not the final goal. Getting an acknowledgment of that sets you on a path to a speedy resolution. Otherwise, you will spend hours listening to bickering. 11. What are the next steps? There is a rampant problem of meetings and discussions from which participants emerge without a sense of what is expected of them in the light of the conversation that just happened. This is a horrible waste of time and energy. 12. Who should be responsible for this step/item? This is similar to the previous point. You want to make sure that accountability is clearly defined. 13. What is the agenda of the meeting? How can we prepare to make it more productive? 14. May I summarize? I learned this technique from Dr. Alan Weiss. It is great for controlling a conversation, especially if it is starting to look like a runaway train. You will be able to wrap up and move the group onto the next topic. 15. Is this A or B ? Frame the conversation through a series of dichotomous questions to focus people on the key concern and not on the vast confusing perimeter. Is the problem with performance or functionality? Is it all functionality or a specific area? Is it geographically dispersed or concentrated? This will save you hours of unstructured discussions. 16. Can you please elaborate/explain? If you don't understand an argument, ask to clarify. This is never a sign of an inadequacy but a sign of confidence. 17. What's the right thing to do? This is a great question to ask to accelerate resolution of a difficult or contentious issue. It works remarkably well. 18. Is there further information available on this issue? If you have a group discussion on your hands that seems to spin around the same issue and there seems to be no interest of moving on, simply ask the audience if there is any new information on this issue, point out that it has been discussed at length, and move everyone onto the next topic.