You received a puzzle for your last birthday and you finally sit down to tackle it. Dumping all the pieces on the table, it looks like one pile of chaos. You know what you have to do and yet where to begin? Fortunately, quite often, you see the full picture of what it should look like on the box cover. You can use it as a reference to figure out where certain pieces go. You probably do something else: Find and separate out all the easy-to-find, straight-edged pieces because you know when you put them together they give you a frame of reference and head start in figuring out where the rest of the pieces go.
Many times in your life, you will be tasked with getting something done, making a big decision, helping someone build something, caring for a loved one. You want to help, you want to get it right, you want to be successful. So often, we are only given a piece of the puzzle. A bit of information. Maybe, if we're lucky, some context. We don't see the full picture of how our piece of information, task or directive that we've just been handed is supposed to fit in or sometimes why we're doing it beyond the obvious "that it needs to be done". What are the implications and intentions with which this piece is supposed to align? Sometimes conversations are like this too. Someone is telling you about an event or something that has transpired between them and someone else and they aren't giving you the full picture, only a piece or scattered pieces of the puzzle that is their story. What to do? Where do you begin to put it all together in a way that adds to the full picture and fill in some of the missing pieces?
The best place to start is to ask a few clarifying questions up front. Doing this is like putting the straight- edged border pieces of a puzzle together first. It frames out the big picture and helps you fit the remaining pieces into it more efficiently. Getting some key contextual insights is also like having some of that picture to refer to like the picture of the finished puzzle that is shown on the lid of the puzzle box . This approach also helps you understand where you fit in the effort to complete the task and who you might engage to help you. Frame the request, task or story as best your can. We have a tendency to just take direction and off we go! We don't pause to ask a few well-placed questions to get the clarity we need to do the job that is expected and the quality of work by which we will be judged.
The idea is to get a sense of the big picture so your approach and work product will line up with the intended purpose and use envisioned by the CEO, Board or your senior leader. Think about what the missing pieces are that you need so you get enough of a sense of the picture. You will have a better shot at proceeding in the right direction focusing on the right aspects of the project. Questions like: What is the purpose? Who is this for? What is the deadline? What is the priority as compared to other high profile projects in the department's (or your individual) pipeline? Is this only a first phase and will it need to be flexible enough to build upon down the line? There are other questions depending on what you've been handed so pause and reflect on what you absolutely need to successfully deliver what is expected without turning it into a painful inquisition.
Finally, if you are the person assigning the task or communicating a desire for someone to do something for you that's important, please define the what as well as the why. Give that person some perspective and any aspects that are critical for you. They will understand the bigger picture, context and key success factors thus having a better shot at delivering the outcome you want.