Catherine's Learning Journal

The power of questions

Bright question mark illuminating pile of question marks

“A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.” ~ Francis Bacon

Many years ago, I provided job hunt and career counseling to people in transition. One day, a man came into my office for help trying to land a good job as a news camera operator at a network station. He was totally frustrated because he had a part-time gig with a local station but it wasn’t going to get him to his goal fast enough. Although he could land a full-time job with that small station, it wouldn’t pay enough to meet his family’s needs. So his father-in-law had given him a job doing general construction work. That construction job paid the bills; the camera job was building necessary experience. He felt he was facing many more years of this dissatisfactory combination because he needed many more hours as a camera operator to get the job he wanted, but he couldn’t afford to take a relevant full-time job that would give him that experience.

When he finished laying out the challenge as he saw it, I asked an exploratory question: why didn’t he reverse the allocation of his time? That is, why not work full time at the local station and fill in his income by working part time for his father-in-law? There was a long pause before the man said: “that was worth the price of the consulting package.” Sure enough, a few days later the man called to say he had made those arrangements, and I didn’t see him again.

I asked exactly. one. question. – but it was a question that the client himself had never considered. And it was a game-changer.

That’s the power of questions.

When we conduct needs analysis in L&D, we can make a difference by asking more powerful questions up front. When we are approached to help with a training challenge, we might get caught in the trap of simply asking order-taking questions: What skill needs to be developed? In what format should the training be delivered? When is the deadline?

We can have a game-changing impact if we strive to ask deeper questions: queries that get at why the request is being made, what the requester is hoping to accomplish, what else is happening in the work and learning environment, the perspective of the anticipated learners, and more. The deeper we understand the whole situation, the more targeted – and impactful – our recommendations can be.

Questions give us superpowers. They illuminate the nooks and crannies so we can see needs clearly and identify barriers. They prompt action – guiding people to explore more deeply and to support learning and performance more effectively (even without training). And they seal collaboration; they make us true partners with our clients, bringing them along to explore issues together.

In order to gain superpowers, we need to choose the right levels of analysis and craft revealing questions. And we need to plan a process that balances a rigorous analysis of the situation against a ticking clock and limited resources to conduct this kind of inquiry. That’s the challenge we face. And we become heroes in our organizations when we can bring superpowers to the task.

I’ve recently been working with clients and students to unleash these kinds of superpowers so they can better scope projects and recommend solutions that will have deep impact. If you’re interested, I’m offering a full day preconference workshop on Honing Your Consulting Superpowers: A focus on needs analysis. It’s on Sunday, March 24, 2019, at the Learning Solutions conference in Orlando, Florida. Or contact me directly to work with you and your team.

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