What’s the Most Powerful Tool in Learning and Change Projects That’s Most Often Neglected?

Let me tell you a story. It’s 1994. I’ve just graduated and begun my first job as a corporate master trainer. In fact, I’ve just sat down to my first business brainstorming session. There are five of us and the company founder, a serial entrepreneur. We’re throwing ideas around. He’s quiet. None of the ideas grabs us. This goes on for 30 or 40 minutes. Then he asks a question, and at the heart of it is a brilliant idea. This idea completely changes the way we look at the problem and opens up a great opportunity that we’d all been blind to up until that point. I go home that evening, and ask myself how he came up with that brilliant idea. I’m stumped. I figure he’s just a genius.

Fast-forward a few weeks and this happens again. Another brainstorming session. A different challenge. A different group of staff with the company founder. And, again, he asks a brilliant question, which leads to a whopper of an idea. Again, I go home and try to figure out what he did. I try to replay the conversation and reverse-engineer his thinking process. But I’m young and inexperienced. Again, I put it down to his natural, creative brilliance. But something at the back of my mind tells me there’s a secret to the puzzle of what he’s doing. A secret you can learn. It took me a while to figure it out. And when I finally did, it completely changed my life and the way I approach the challenge of helping people to learn and change.

Fast-forward 15 years, and almost everywhere I look, corporate learning is broken. I hear the same themes at one conference after another. People detest corporate learning. Formal learning just doesn’t work. Elearning is dull. Retention rates are abysmal. Engagement rates are poor. And kids hate school more than ever!

This doesn’t surprise me at all. What’s missing from these learning and change projects? It turns out that the thing that is missing is the answer to the puzzle of how one guy was able to come up with great ideas, time after time after time.

Have you figured out what it is? Of course, like most things in life, it’s not one thing. It’s a whole system of ideas. But is there a nucleus that binds this system of ideas together? Yup. It’s the power of thought-provoking questions. Thought-provoking questions were the source of the brilliant ideas in those brainstorming sessions. And this is what’s so often neglected in poor corporate learning and change initiatives.

Big deal, right? No learning or change practitioner is going to argue against the value of questions in learning. Everyone I meet nods when I talk about the power and value of questions in learning. It’s a no-brainer, right? Well I started my career as a master trainer. Later I became an instructional designer. And then I co-founded a digital learning company. And through all this I realized a simple truth. In learning and change projects, too often questions are superficial – or worse – counter-productive. I can’t capture in this post all that we’ve learned about using questions in digital coaching or change projects. But what I’d like to share with you are three ideas orbiting the nucleus, which we might call ‘thought provoking questions’.

1. User-centered learning

When we approach the design of an automated coaching or change project, one of our primary goals is to discover the best thought-provoking questions to help people learn and activate behavior change. Central to this approach is putting the user (rather than the information) first. It’s user-centered learning, rather than curriculum-centered or information-centered.

Don’t all instructional designers and change management practitioners put the learner first? No. In our experience, even when designers and change agents are aware of the need to put learners at the center of the learning or change process, the sheer mass of information they’re working with exerts a kind of gravitational force on their attention; pulling it toward the information and away from the receivers of the information. Wow, that’s a mouthful! In a nutshell, designers usually think more about the information than about the learners.

So why is this a problem, and how does a question-centered approach help drive user-centered design and learning? When we approach the learning challenge by seeking thought-provoking questions, we focus our attention on what the user is thinking, how the user is thinking and why the user is thinking in this way. And, once we start to explore the user’s context in full, we begin to build enough mass to hold not only our own attention during the design phase, but also the user’s attention on their learning or change journey. With our attention on the learner rather than on the information, we become far more concerned with the learner’s motivation. And since we’re designing questions to help the user think about their own context – the context of their strengths, their challenges, their work, their team, their organization – we’re building connections that result in much higher rates of engagement and attention.

In short, thought-provoking questions tend to be user-centered and context-driven, and focused on building motivation and improving retention and engagement.

What thought-provoking questions can you use to make your digital coaching, learning, or change project more user-centered?

2. Focus

Thought-provoking questions have another powerful impact. If they’re designed well, they help to focus the mind. Well-designed questions? Can we ‘design’ questions? You bet! This is something we’ve specialized in for the past 15 years. The challenge we set ourselves is to design questions that prepare the mind in at least three ways.

First, we want our thought-provoking questions to be unambiguous yet open, so that the attention of our learner or change participant is focused like a spotlight on a stage.

Second, we want our thought-provoking questions to define the shape, color and texture – the form – of the thoughts we want to materialize in their minds.

Third, we want our thought-provoking questions to open their minds fully to their internal resources (feelings and thoughts) and external inputs (new ideas). In fact, the most powerful questions are those that stimulate awareness of internal resources and connect these with the new ideas you want your people to explore.

In short, thought-provoking questions enable people to focus and reflect on their own context, which helps them to understand, appreciate and remember the value and power of the new (and possibly unfamiliar) ideas in your learning or change program. And this in turn activates behavior change.

What thought-provoking questions can you use in your digital coaching, learning, or change project that focus on the learner’s context (tacit, unarticulated knowledge)? And which of these questions would be most useful in achieving your learning and behavior change goals?

3. Original thinking

So what happens when you design thought-provoking, user-centered questions that help learning and change participants to focus their thinking? These are inputs, right? So what’s the output? Original thinking and value-creation.

This brings me back to the story of those brainstorming sessions. At first I was stumped. How did the company founder come up with great ideas time after time? But as I played back those brainstorming conversations in my mind, I began to see the patterns. The brainstorming sessions were chats, dialogues, conversations. The conversations consisted of questions and responses. His ideas almost always materialized in his questions. Often, they were “What if?” questions, or “How about?” questions. So this was my hypothesis, which I put to the test in three ways.

First, I closely observed the subsequent brainstorming sessions, listening carefully for his contributions. And, sure enough, he either asked a question directly, or he would suggest an idea that I saw could easily have popped into his mind if he’d been thinking in terms of a question at that moment.

Second, I tried it myself. I began to focus on the questions that were occurring to me as I was thinking. At first, I simply paid attention to the questions I was asking myself. Then I began choosing my thought-questions more selectively. And pretty soon I started seeking out more powerful, provocative, fertile questions. The results were immediate: my thinking became a lot more creative.

Third, I wanted to see if I could package questions, give them to others, and see creative results. But how? Well, I was fortunate enough to be invited to deliver a seminar on innovation for new product development at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business. So I created a toolbox of creative questions – which I’d been collecting for a couple of years – in the form of a deck of cards. I handed these out to the MBA students and the results were immediate. Most students reported an immediate and powerfully creative impact on their thinking, which confirmed for me that the right kinds of questions drive original thinking. I subsequently ran the seminar seven times over the course of three years, with the same results every time.

What was my biggest takeaway from this? Thought-provoking questions have an immediate impact on people. Over the preceding years, I’d read dozens of long-winded books on creativity that’d had limited impact on my thinking. Several of my MBA students described similar experiences. Books about creativity are interesting, even fascinating, but they don’t necessarily make you any more creative. But when you give people well-designed, thought-provoking questions, they begin thinking creatively with immediate effect. Talk about accelerated learning!

In short, thought-provoking questions help people to think creatively, inspiring original ideas that have value for them personally, for their team and for their organization.

What thought-provoking questions can you ask people in your digital coaching, learning, or change project to promote creative thinking about their work?

Fast-forward again, this time to the present. For the past five years at Cognician we’ve been applying our question-centered/user-centered learning methodology in areas ranging from leadership development and strengths-based coaching, to employee engagement, customer service excellence, and continuous improvement. And the results are remarkable.

It turns out that if you give people thought-provoking questions, the learning process becomes a whole lot more interesting – and effective!

Where can you add powerful, thought-provoking questions to your digital coaching, learning, or change-management project?