Project Management

Alexander's Question

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By John Herman   PMP, CQE, MPM

About 40 years ago, a new strain of flu hit in New Jersey.  During the analysis of that flu outbreak, critical thinking took a big step forward via questions asked by Dr. Russell Alexander, although no one probably realized the impact at that time.  Alexander’s Question, as a management tool, was probably refined and documented for the first time by Richard E. Neustadt and Ernest R. May in their book, “Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers”.

In a nutshell, Alexander’s Question can be summed up like this: 

“What information, if we had it, would make us change our decision?”

Follow-up activities are focused on obtaining that information so that the decision can be based on better information, and thus likely have better results. 

The goal of Alexander's Question is to uncover assumptions and perspectives that may be clouding one’s judgment. By asking what information would be needed to change your mind, faulty reasoning can be intercepted and the decision can be based on more objective data.  Alexander’s Question can also identify which facts should be researched before committing to a course of action.

Another, more detailed variation of Alexander’s Question focuses on Project Management aspects like risk, schedule, and quality management :

What new information would change your estimation? When would you need this information? Why would it change your estimation?

Regardless of how Alexander’s Question is written, the underlying principle is the same:   Identifying information that would make the decision more firmly rooted in facts, and less based on subjective opinions.  

Posted on: October 23, 2015 10:08 AM | Permalink

Comments (6)

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This is a great question that will lead to more informed decisions. The criticality of a quick decision is, of course, a factor, but this question can be asked within that context and the answers applied appropriately.

Hi John, Great post. Most of the times, we tend to confine our thoughts to familiar patterns and trends. Asking this question opens up new possibilities and creative outcomes. Prabhaker Panditi

Yes, fact based management is the call of the day. Thanks John for sharing your thoughts.

Lateral Thinking complements Alexander's question when a person moves from one known idea to creating new ideas. Lateral Thinking, coined by Edward de Bono in 1967, who defines four types of thinking tools:

1.- Idea-generating tools intended to break current thinking patterns—routine patterns, the status quo
2.- Focus tools intended to broaden where to search for new ideas
3.- Harvest tools intended to ensure more value is received from idea generating output
4.- Treatment tools that promote consideration of real-world constraints, resources, and support

Dear John,
That is interesting question because it is firstly assumed that decision already taken and there is some unknown information regarding this issue. Hence, the decision maker has not 360 degrees view before he did it. So it all about the student’s mistakes not the Master’s one. Of course it’s ideal situation to be described but the question wasn’t practical too, wasn’t? :-)
Vitaly Glotov

Yes, Vitaly. It is not always possible to do a 360 view before making a decision, or perhaps a 360 view was made, and some facts are obscured. If all the facts are known before a decision is made, then the decision is obvious. In theory, given ample time and resources, all facts can be determined before making a decision. As we know, in practice, there is not usually an abundance of time and resources.

In the case of Dr. Alexander, a possible disease outbreak was imminent, and lives were at risk. Delaying to gather all the facts could result in more deaths and a more widespread outbreak.

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