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PM is about best practices, processes, tools, and techniques related to Project Management. Sometimes a question is tagged as: "shopping question" when people ask about some tool recommendation or best practices when it is by definition what is PM about.

For this particular site, I think we should have a specific moderator mindset. For programming language Q&A site related such as a Java, Perl, HTML, it is pretty forward to identify a shopping question, but not for this particular case, where the core of this knowledge area is about best practices, processes, procedures, techniques, and tools.

Looking into Help Center for the question: What topics can I ask about here?, there is a specific mention about: "Tool Usage in Project Management", according to this explanation questions related to the usage of any PM tool related can be asked, but sometimes there are questions considered as "shopping question" when someone ask for the best way to do something using a particular tool.

In the same question from the Help Center, is explained that this site is not about for: Shopping Questions (keep in mind this post is from 2010, 7 years ago!). The post refers to question types related to specific products, such as camera, Macbook vs, etc. There is no a close example for a situation that can apply to PM site.

How can be considered a shopping question applicable for this particular PM site given the situation that PM is about to follow best practices, established by the industry or specific communities?

Here in PM Meta, there is the following question: Can I ask Jira specific question?, the answer is Yes, but sometimes a similar question related to other tools is considered as shopping question.

For example, I posted the following question: Good All-in-one excel template for SCRUM framework?, looking for best practices or best well known excel templates for using SCRUM, it was considered as:

  1. Out of Project Management according to the scope defined in Help Center
  2. Shopping question

About the first reason, it is a question about SCRUM, that is included in the PM site scope and about the second one, I think this concept has to be customized to the subject of this site. The question is asking for specific PM tool usage (i.e. following the PM site scope definition). It is related to the Excel usage in the context of SCRUM. Nor is a question like Excel vs Google Sheets for SCRUM.

By the way, a similar question, was posted in Quora: Has anybody successfully managed Scrum with Excel as the key tool?, therefore it seems a reasonable question, that can be asked in a similar site, but not here.

The purpose of this question it to provoke a reflexion about it by the moderators and members of this community that are probably using this shopping question criterion as a golden hammer applying the same mindset as in other similar Stack Exchange sites that are product/programming language specific. I would also suggest re-evaluating what is a shopping question for the context of this PM site. This site is about PM, that is highly related to the best practices about techniques tools and techniques and not product specific.

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TL;DR

Software and tool recommendations are off-topic for a number of reasons. PMSE is neither a search engine nor a Consumer Reports style test lab, and the site's format is unsuited to providing canonical answers to "best fit" questions that don't devolve into discussions, comparisons, or guesswork.

Below I cover why shopping questions are likely to remain outside the community guidelines for the foreseeable future. Other answers may provide additional perspectives, but the reasons below should be fairly comprehensive.

Questions Should Invite Canonical Answers

Stack Exchange is a Q&A site rather than an open forum. As a result, there is an expectation that on-topic questions will have a canonical answer. A question where many answers are all equally valid is inherently off-topic on a site that hosts answers rather than opinions.

List and Search Questions Aren't Canonical

List and search questions don't generally lead to canonical answers. Search questions in particular are usually a poor fit for a canonical Q&A, although there are occasionally exceptions such as when a search term is horribly non-obvious. Questions of the form:

  • "Where can I find..."
  • "Which tool..."
  • "What's the best..."

are at best list-generating, and at worst can be answered more canonically by Google. Search questions don't belong on PMSE either.

For example, "Where can I find the Scrum Guide?" is a question that Google can answer for you in 0.44 seconds. Looking for Scrum templates for Microsoft Excel returns around 395,000 results for you to compare against your specific needs.

Furthermore, these types of questions invite link-only answers. If you just want a pointer to a resource, search engines do the job better than a Q&A site. On the other hand, if you're looking for a comprehensive evaluation of a large field of options, you're trying to crowdsource a fitness-for-purpose exercise that is both too broad in scope and too narrow in its suitability for a wider audience beyond your own needs.

Tool Usage is About Process or Techniques

Good tool-related questions are about processes or techniques—not about comparative rankings, feature bake-offs, or finding templates and plugins. A good tool-related question is generally of the form: "I want to do X with tool Y. How do I do that?" How questions generally have a much longer useful life, and a wider applicable audience, than which questions.

Tool usage questions are often on topic because they lead to answers about process or techniques, and often uncover X/Y problems or anti-patterns. For example, trying to manage a typical Scrum project in a one-page Excel worksheet is possible, but is widely considered an anti-pattern for anything other than secondary reporting.

While it's okay for answers to suggest alternative tools that might better address the process needs defined in the question, explicitly asking for tool (or template) recommendations in the question buries a ton of subjectivity and supposition that typically result in answers where every answer is potentially applicable to somebody. Even Software Recommendations Stack Exchange has strict guidelines for question quality, and expects questions to define both a use case and objective requirements for answers to narrow the field.

Feature Comparisons are Always Subjective

The question that sparked this meta discussion is an example of a reasonably-researched question (kudos for that!) that is nevertheless not at all about process. It's a laundry list of features, and therefore elicits thoroughly subjective answers that invite further comparisons. While there may be a template somewhere that ticks all your boxes, even that is somewhat dubious because how it calculates or presents that information may not be what you want. If your natural inclination is to say that if you had a list of such templates you could then contrast and compare, you're making my point for me.

That's why feature bake-offs for COTS software is a common need within projects: it takes time and money to evaluate all of the options, and there's rarely a "best" answer. Each project needs to define its own acceptance criteria (which is not the same as a specification), and templates are no different. How will you measure the acceptability of a given template? How will those measurements be done? If you can answer those things, then your question becomes answerable, but it also becomes less likely that you need to ask it of others outside your team.

Summary

This issue is raised often on PMSE (as elsewhere on Stack Exchange), and everyone who raises it wants the guideline changed because an answer to their search or list question would help them. However, the guideline exists for a reason, and is one of the key reasons that Stack Exchange is considered a go-to source of information in the first place. Keeping "shopping questions" off this site is therefore in the best interest of both the PMSE community and the wider Internet audience.

  • I guess it would be more productive to provoke a debate than to defend the status quo. For example in English Language & Usage site, there is no mention about "shopping question". Probably there is no canonical answer for most of the answers. Because the topic is more subjective like here the focus of PM is to share best practices. You can find many other SE sites were such kind of constraint is more difficult to define. Why here? It seems there is no a simple and short answer. – David Leal Jul 12 '17 at 17:54
  • @DavidLeal That's the point: Stack Exchange is not a forum or a debate; it's a question and answer site, where there is an expectation that there is actually a canonical answer. You keep side-stepping this. There are other venues for "provoking a debate." – Todd A. Jacobs Jul 12 '17 at 18:52
  • I mean debate/discuss around the question I formulated here, I know SE is Q&A site, I don't see a canonical answer for my question. My only intention is to formulate a question that would help to improve PMSE, just that. It is not personal. I appreciate a lot the SE sites. I expounded my point of view, I hope it helps. Best Regards. – David Leal Jul 12 '17 at 19:39
  • @DavidLeal I'd disagree that there aren't canonical answers to most of the questions on ELU. Sure, 'what are some synonyms of X?' might be such, but questions about grammar or etymology usually do have a canonical answer. I also imagine part of the reason they don't bother to mention shopping questions is because there is no need - other than maybe 'What dictionary should I use?', the topic does not lend itself to shopping questions. – Sarov Jul 14 '17 at 13:58
  • @Sarov, this is my entire point. I got the impression we are using the "shopping question" criterion as a golden hammer with a mindset that comes mainly from other sites where it is easier to see the difference, or where that problem often occurred. In order to avoid answer related about product recommendation, but PM is about best practices, some one has to recommend something in order to become a best practice then. I hope this topic would help to think about it in the future and come with a definition that better fit to this topic. ELU its just an example of site does not define it – David Leal Jul 14 '17 at 18:56
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Although I understand your frustration, I believe that the key difference between the Jira questions and the Excel question you raised is that no one is asking on these Jira questions 'what's the task tracking tool I should use?' but instead 'In Jira (this already well stablished and common project management tool), how do I achieve X?'

A Shopping question is when you're unsure what's to use... and they should be closed. A borderline shopping question is related to a tool that may or may not be too specific and then closed or interesting enough to be kept opened and shared with other users.

Can I ask a Jira-specific question here?

Yes, because we're talking about a common management tool, like MS Project and any other tool.

Hope this makes sense!

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    Thanks, I see what you mean. My question is more like this: "What is the best way for doing something using Excel" It is not something that can be solved just with an Excel command, for sure it should be a template file. But at the end, it is a solution to this question. It is not a product recommendation, it is about collecting the best practices related to Scrum management using Excel. In my question, I mentioned several approaches, based on my research. I just wanted to know about other possible solutions and best-in class Excel template according to the community. – David Leal Jul 14 '17 at 19:48
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Interesting question. I concur with the other answers, but I'll add that

"What's the best way to..." is semantically similar to "What's the prettiest girl..." - the answer depends on the requirements.

That sounds rather like a platitude, but consider

  • "best way" depends heavily on culture. Most offices rely on Macintosh, but I work in the US government that was acquired by Microsoft in the late 90's - we don't use apple products. (and I tend to break out in hives if I use apple products).

  • Is the best way to produce a graphic or a textual response? Many of my bosses have been verbal people who would throw a temper tantrum if asked to read more than a sentence or two.

  • Is the "best way" to align with PRINCE2, PMP, SCRUM, SCRUMBUT, or ....

  • "best way" depends on industry - you're going to get a different answer in software development than in construction.

I'll stop there, but whenever I see the word "best", I immediately ask "best for whom?" "Best practice" and "Industry standards" always yield to specific management expectations. (In computer security, "best practices" is code for "we can't afford an expert"). In general, "Best...." indicates a desire for a high transfer, high context answer that is ill suited to SE

Questions that begin "How do I..." tend to focus on low transfer techniques that are well suited to SE.

I'm glad you asked the question - glad that we have to re-examine the issue. But I think in this case we have to rely on the wisdom of the moderators.

  • Very interesting your point. The thing is that this site is focused on a topic (PM) that relays on best practices by its own definition. Then the approach should be different. I agree that we have to rely on the wisdom of the moderators. My point is that the moderators came from other sites where to identify a "shopping question" is easier and under totally different context. It is like moving a UK police to the US and expect he/she would understand how to act in Chicago based on the experience in London (it is a little bit exaggerate example but it has something true) – David Leal Aug 2 '17 at 20:54

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