Obtaining project details

Hi! My name is Vladimir. I am a developer at Maxilect. In addition to my technical education, I have a background in practical psychology. In this article, I will break down a model that can complement project information, both in team discussions and in conversations with the business. The model contains questions to ask to get the data you need faster.

Classics — What does the customer really want?

The text was based on internal training materials, which I conducted in our company in early February 2021.

When a leader, business leader, or client tells us about a project, they base the story on their personal experience. We cannot fully perceive this experience. Our message will be distorted, at least due to a different understanding of words.

However, our task is to understand the transmitted information to realize the customer’s needs correctly. Lack of understanding at this stage results in inappropriate ideas, unnecessary actions, and fundamentally incorrect implementation.

Experiment with the guides transfer

During internal training on this topic, we retell the fictional task three times to show how much information is distorted. For the experiment’s purity, the participants did not prepare, and it was impossible to write down the details. Each participant heard the predecessor’s story (but not the previous retellings) and only once. He had to memorize as many details as possible and pass them on to the next.

Guides of the customer from the future. Original version

A man from the future came to us a long time ago. His name was Maaryya. He revealed to us the construction of a time machine — Aksha. He warned us that he would return to help to build it. This machine opens an abundant world where we will be in happiness, joy, and incessant pleasure.

Until that time, we must develop technologies to obtain the necessary alloys and devices. Maaryya will appear when we have everything we need.

Alloy Seaborgium with 3 and 1 thousandth% of Niobium must be made at temperatures below 10 Kelvin in a container lined with Scandium.

The shape of the alloy should be spherical with notches every 18 degrees. The depth of the cutouts should have a 1-millimeter radius and must be accurate to 1 picometer. The radius of the sphere is 3 centimeters.

Maaryya warned that Aksha could only be created if the entire technology of manufacturing the sphere is strict. Maaryya will help when he returns with everything else.

Guides of the customer from the future. First retelling

The creature named Maaryya flew to us from the future. It said it would fly to us again to help build a time machine. It is called Aksha.

To complete this task, we need to stay awake on our planet and prepare for the second arrival because Maaryya will not do everything for us. From our side, we need Siborium and another substance — with the letter B (let’s call it Borium). They need to be mixed in a ratio of 3 and 1 thousandth of a gram with another substance (it seems it was called Serenty). Something must be done at a temperature of minus 1000 degrees in a vessel that has a 9 cm hole.

Guides of the customer from the future. Second retelling

An alien from the future arrives. Her name is Maaryya. We will need to make a time machine — they call it Akshna. Maaryya has all the knowledge of how to do it, but she will not help us.

To make a time machine, we need three substances: Borium, Siborium, and something else. The temperature at which the reaction takes place is minus 1000 degrees. In this case, we need 3.001 of Borium. There is no information about the rest.

Maaryya will fly to us again to see the result.

Guides of the customer from the future. Third retelling

The alien Maarya will come to us. We need to make a time machine for her. But she will not help us. She will come the second time to check how we coped with the task.

To make a time machine, you need three substances: Borium, Seborium, and something else. Borium needs a temperature of minus 1000 degrees. The amount of Borium is 3.001.

We will get a great project if we follow the last guides! (joke).

But let’s figure it out. Details gradually disappeared from history:

  • Initially, it was said that the alien flew in and left the guides. In the final version, it turned out that he did not visit us but would arrive only at the end to see the result.
  • The information that the alien will open us an abundant world, where we will be in happiness, joy, and incessant pleasure, was also omitted even at the first retelling. At the same time, technical data on the capacity and shape of the alloy disappeared.
  • The details were distorted: the alloy’s composition changed both in terms of substances and in their proportions. Percentages in the original story turned into grams. 10 Kelvin turned to -1000 degrees.

Curiously, the name Maaryya was preserved in all the retellings, even though the story became shorter each time. It always happens that way. We highlight the essential information for ourselves, and the rest we discard, distort, or slightly change following our perception.

Let’s talk about how to restore the original information with questions.


Our main problems are generalizations, distortions, and omissions. We saw these mechanisms in our previous example. To recover information, we have a metamodel that orders the speech patterns according to the degree of generalization from the smallest to the largest:

  • Non-specific nouns (table, chair, aqua-discotheque, palace, brush). These are words describing specific objects of the real world — what we can touch, feel. It should be kept in mind that everyone imagines their own “table” or “chair”, but one way or another we can find their embodiment in the physical world.
  • Non-specific verbs (rule, receive, don’t give a damn, love, grab, remember, get out). This is not just an object, but some continuous action that everyone can perceive in their way.
  • Comparative generalizations (more, less, smoother, more successful, our own, someone else’s, quality). These are mainly adjectives. A person chooses the criteria for comparison by his life experience. These criteria are unknown to us.
  • Nominalizations (understanding, education, love, situation, anxiety, respect). They are nouns, but they do not represent real objects. These are abstract concepts described using verbal nouns — a frozen process or several parallel processes.
  • Modal operators of impossibility and necessity (follows …, must, have, cannot, need).
  • Overgeneralization (everything, constantly, nobody, everyone). This is a combination of everything in one pile, again based on a person’s personal experience.

For each of the patterns, you can offer your questions for clarification to get from a more general to a less general pattern:

  • Non-specific nouns. Let’s take a table. It can be different — high or low, of different shapes and purposes. The task of clarification is to determine the most important parameters of the table for us to restore the picture in the head of a person. Questions: Who/what exactly? Which one exactly? Whose?
  • Non-specific verbs. The first example was “rule.” You can rule in different ways — there is a monarchy or a democracy. Our task is to find out what behavior is hidden behind this term. What exactly does a person do? Therefore, it would be logical to ask the question: how exactly?
  • Comparative generalizations. The purpose of questions for such a generalization is to find out what a person is comparing with, to identify criteria that are close to the physical world. Questions: In relation to what? How much?
  • Nominalizations. By revealing nouns that are not represented in the physical world, our task is to understand what a person means. What was this process, how did it interact with other objects. Questions: Who? When? Where? With whom? How exactly?
  • Modal operators of impossibility and necessity. These are the limitations that a person sets for himself. We ask questions to reveal its nature. Some of our questions can be aimed to go beyond the limits. Questions: What’s in the way? What happens if you did / didn’t do? Who told you that?
  • Overgeneralizations We must diminish generalization to a specific case. If a person generalizes his experience incorrectly, we must find a counterexample. Perhaps he means a particular situation. Questions: Everything? Remember a time when it was different. Nobody at all? Is it all?

How it works in practice

Suppose a customer says they want a low-legged chair. We need to understand how low. To do this, we need to:

  1. See the patterns of the metamodel. Better to start with the most general ones.
  2. Come up with substantive questions to debunk this pattern. We must try not to go into a larger generalization. For example, the question “why” often leads to a generalization. And “what makes you act this way?” — to dissociation.
  3. Ask the correct question.

Be environmentally friendly

I want to warn you that you need to clarify carefully. If you ask several questions for each generalization, it will quickly become annoying. Here are some tips to reduce this irritation:

  • Prepare the person. Say that you do not understand everything, and you need to ask a few clarifying questions.
  • Keep in mind why you are doing this. Be aware of the information you want to receive. Pointless questions are annoying.
  • Ask the following question only after the person has answered the previous one. Three questions in a row can put the interlocutor into a “trance” — he will not understand what to answer.
  • Do not repeat questions of the same design. It hurts the ear much more than the questions themselves. With practice, variability will come — you will learn to ask the same question in different ways, which will calm the interlocutor.
  • If the interlocutor is negative, change the direction of the questions. Perhaps this is a sore subject for a person, or he does not understand why he should answer.
  • A metamodel is a coaching tool. But there is no need for a person to be “treated” if he does not ask for it. You should not reveal abstract concepts like love, responsibility, etc. if a person is not interested in it.

Good luck with your practice!

I talked about the clarifications in the project. But the model can be used for any area of ​​life. The article, of course, does not cover all the details of the model. But you can already start using it to collect information. I recommend practicing to formulate questions faster and more naturally.

The author of the article: Vladimir Bushmanov, Maxilect.

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