Applying the Socratic Method to “Problem Solving” in Project Management

When utilizing the Socratic method, an instructor asks her pupils a series of questions designed to stimulate more complete thinking and insight. Applying the Socratic method forces you to look more closely at your ideas, beliefs, and assumptions.

Did you know, more data has been created in the past two years than in the entire previous history of the human race?  While the ramifications of having access to this much knowledge are still to be determined, one thing is clear: we have (at our fingertips) access to an unprecedented amount of data.

The key point of the Socratic method (that we apply to our project management systems) is using cooperative argumentative dialogue to stimulate true critical thinking. Put another way, we don’t let opinions and non-facts stand in the way of making the best decision.

In web and software development, a lot of tasks that seem like much simpler tasks are often found out to be more difficult.

Take this example of updating the design of a website:

We’ve decided we want to replace the logos, and update the website colors and schemes. We know it’s just reorganizing the home page, updating a few logos and changing the text around.

At first, this seems easy, we think it’ll take a few hours. We don’t need to do any research to see how long this took in the past (accessing our own data) or how long it took competing companies (accessing available data on the internet or other resources). We already “know.”

So we compile the necessary materials (new logo, branding guide, fonts) and we begin. Unfortunately, we find out after two hours the new format takes longer than we thought. We told the boss it’d be ready by the end of the day, but now it looks like it won’t be ready until tomorrow.

Tomorrow comes around, the new look still isn’t ready. It turns out the designers didn’t properly account for mobile websites, and the new email templates are horrific looking in Outlook. Chaos ensues.

This takes all day to correct, and the next day begins.

We’re now on the second day of a project that was supposed to only take an afternoon, and the boss mentions “even Amazon Prime could have delivered it by now!” Developers begin to worry if they’ll see their wives again (play Battlefield 1) and designers are blogging furiously about how incompetent programmers are.

No one took the time to plan the projects, with a focus on moving beyond underlying presumptions (“it’s just a simple redesign”) and finding out the real issues (“this wasn’t properly planned for across device and in different platforms”). Nor did anyone check the data we have readily available to set proper timelines.

Larger problems have a nasty habit of disguising themselves as “just a few more hours of hard work,” and unrealistic deadlines (whether hindsight or known) cause unnecessary stress and fires to put out. Couple that with the standard human ego–especially when dealing with “experts” in an industry–and you have a perfect recipe for unnecessary stress.

Enter the Socratic questioning method, and we now have a solution for solving all of our tasks:

  1. Break each task into pieces, elements, and components.
  2. Look for relationships between the components, and missing information. If we need to add a new logo to the website, do we have all of the logo sizes and files, or is it buried in some PDF?
  3. Add the simplified as tasks within the Task Tracking software (we’re currently using Asana).
  4. Check prior tasks within HubStaff (this is a  tool we use to track how long it takes people to complete a given task). If we’ve never done a task like this before, spend some time on the internet or with a trusted colleague to get a better estimate and possible task-outliers
  5. Ok, now go back and actually read all of the materials and provided project tasks. Seriously, a number of tasks that aren’t done properly because someone skimmed a PDF (“Hey, I’m the busy CEO, I don’t have time for reading memos”) is baffling. Spend 15 more minutes planning a task and save yourself hours of back-and-forth.
  6. Create a video or have a meeting to review all the tasks, ensure all developers and people responsible for the task ask the important questions (and are ready to identify and immediately point out potential constraints, bottlenecks, or failures”
  7. Check the business logic and make sure there is a point for doing this. A lot of time is wasting on people doing well what needs not be done at all

It seems there is an accepted form of professional blackmail, where experts are expected to have the answers to a question at any given moment. Let’s be honest and acknowledge this is rarely the case. Using the Socratic Method for problem solving, while taking a few extra hours, is bound to save days and weeks of headaches and “delayed projects” from affecting other areas of business.