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Questions² – Exploring new types of insightful questions

Vulnerability, curiosity, doubting and asking questions are often mentioned as important traits for people in leadership positions, or for professionals in general. I find it interesting to see how we can stimulate these traits by getting better at asking questions. To explore ‘the art of asking questions’ I’ve conducted a little experiment, ‘crosstabulating’ the three most basic questions with each other, thereby generating nine different types of questions.

We all know the basic questions “how?”, “what?” and “why?”, obviously. Some questions are easy to classify as ‘a why-question’ for example, while others are more difficult to categorise. In the drawing below, I explore nine different types of question consisting of a ‘primary doubt’, based on one of three basic questions, supplemented with a ‘secondary doubt’ to make the question a little bit more comples, and thereby -hopefully- more valuable and insightful.


As you can see, the ‘complex’ questions can be described as ‘what-why’ or ‘how-how’ questions for example, and form quite distinct categories. I can imagine that individuals might have an ‘unconscious’ preference or bias towards certain specific categories, therby neglecting other types of questions. If this is indeed the case, broadening their ‘question repertoire’ might be helpful.

Q: Do the categories work for you? And do you think ‘expanding your question repertoire’ is interesting to do?

Document: The art of strategic doubting

Organisational identity

Why are we here? Where are we going, and how will we get there? How can we get all the noses in the same direction? What questions do we ask ourselves during the process of creating a strategy, and what questions do we answer while communicating about it? Being fully aware of what we are doing, how we do it, and why is crucial both for our own understanding of ‘our meaning of life’ and for engaging others to buy into our ideas.

This document describes what I think are some elements of good strategic communication, whether on a department level or on the level of a project. See document: The art of strategic doubting

Would be very curious to hear your thoughts on it!!

Learning: If it’s so hard to take it out, and equally hard to put it back in…. why take it out at all?

For learning & development professionals in organisations, I see two major challenges: 1) To distill out of ‘the business’ what learning and development needs there are, and 2) when we are done in our ‘l&d lab’ to ‘sell’ learning solutions back to the business and ensure transfer of learning. So, if it’s so hard to take it out, and equally hard to put it back in…. why take it out at all?


In my opinion the language we use to intermediate between the demand (the learner) for and the supply (the l&d professional) of learning solutions is very much focused on what we learn. What do we need to learn? What topics are relevant to my role? What have I learned in this course? What will be in the exam? You could argue if that is the most appropriate language since learners talk amongst themselves about why they want to learn (Excel in my job, increase job security, master a skill, satisfy curiousity) and learning & development professionals talk about how we can learn most effectively (quality training, learning methods, learning on the job). Agreed, it works to match supply to demand, but there is a risk the match is too superficial and responsibility (or rather accountability) for the learning solution is deferred to the learning professional while it belongs to the learner.

We often talk about stimulating learning on the job in combination with formal training and about the transfer of learning from a training, but simply viewing (professional) learning as something seperate/different than working (even when done in the same place) is unnecessary in my view. Why call a meeting with a trainer a training, and not a meeting? Why call a trainer a trainer and a learner a participant if we want the responsibility of the learning to be with the learner? Learning should be part of working. It is ‘meta-working’ (evaluating and improving our work). This is not the same as ‘learning on the job’, and I’d rather call it ‘performing consciously’. See also my post “Is learning the same as performing consciously?”

The solution in my opinion does not lie primarily in finding new learning methods or strategies, we are pretty good at that, but more in how we ‘label’ learning initiatives and the people and departments involved in learning. It’s more a language thing than anything else. We should aim to keep learning where it’s most valuable and least distracting: in the work. This does not mean it should always take place in the same physical location as the work itself by the way. And I can imagine there are many exceptions to this, but I think it’s more true than we currently believe and put into practice.

Learning objectives vs. learning questions

Why do we use learning objectives to describe what the aim of a training is? They are difficult to write, difficult to remember during the actual learning and often not really representative of the training in hindsight. This is even more the case in learning on the job. Is the solution to this to become better at writing learning objectives and reminding learners of them during the learning process? Or could there be another solution?

I like to think that if we would use ‘learning questions’ instead of ‘learning objectives’, in many cases we could be better off. To investigate, I’ve made a comparison.

 Learning objectives

 Learning questions

  1. After the programme, you will be able to name and explain five of the main strategic pillars of our organisation.
  2. You will gain a thorough understanding of each phase of negotiation and the tactics and behaviours you need to succeed in your negotiations (source: RSM)
  3. After completion of the thesis project, the student is able to  present and discuss the results to a scientific and non-scientific audience (source: UvA)

  1. What strategic choices have we made and how do we intend to materialise them?
  2. Should my negotiations follow certain phases? How can I prepare for each phase?
  3. How can I help people in and outside science understand what I’ve done?
Learning objectives aim to focus our learning towards the desired learning outocomes. This focus helps to seperate important elements in the offered content from the unimportant ones based on their fit with the desired outcomes, but they also make us overlook other, potentially interesting elements. Learning questions aim to make us curious about a certain topic with the intent to make us search for valuable outcomes, but not necessarily the ones we expected. In this way, it might stimulate serendipity (the talent to find things we didn’t look for but do need/want)
Objectives can be experienced as being pacifying rather than activating in a way that they limit our autonomy in choosing what elements contribute to reaching a desired outcome.
E.g. Example 3 seems to limit us to learning presentation skills
Questions might be more activating to the learner as they can stimulate learners to think about possible answers, or possible ways to reach the desired learning outcome.
In example 3, the learner might set out to discuss his/her work to his/her mother in law or -even better- start blogging about it ;)
Learning objectives, in my opinion, stimulate a ‘climate’ where knowing the answers is seen as a sign of success. Knowing the answers can obviously not be a bad thing, unless it makes us disregard (people with) good questions and challenging ideas.
In example 2 we are told negotiations have phases and there are identified tactics and behaviors we should apply to be successful in negotiations. Outcome might be limited to behavior or skill level.
Learning questions could stimulate doubting. Although doubting is often perceived as being negative, I think it can be highly effective in combination with good decisionmaking. Finding and asking the right questions is often more difficult than answering the questions that are most available.
In example 3 we are invited to consider if it would help to phase our negotiations and to think about possible ways to prepare (including tactics and behaviors). Outcome might be on a metacognitive or mindset level.
The fact that with learning objectives we state more clearly the desired outcomes, means that we are more likely to reach expected learning outcomes and that we will be better able to measure learning (on the learning level, not necessarily on the behavior, result or ROI level). With learning questions, the learning outcomes might be harder to measure, mainly because they are to a large extent unpredictable. However, the value of the unexpected outcomes might be higher than any outcome we could have expected or measured, especially because they are the product of the learner’s individual learning process. I can imagine this depends greatly on the content domain of the learning.

I know the comparison is not always accurate, but I hope to -at least- raise a few questions for those who are struggeling with explaining the purpose of learning initiatives (starting with myself).

Q: Do you have any experience with this? Are you curious about giving it a try?

Q: Would you like me to try to transform one of your learning objectives? If yes, please fill in the form below.

We make right what cannot be

What do we do when we observe something that -in our experience- cannot be true? Do we really make it right in our minds, even if it means we’re kidding ourselves? I would really like to think that I’m not doing that, but probably there is no way of knowing that… right? If we want to consider all the options, even the seemingly impossible ones, we should stop kidding ourselves!

In a previous post “The future has a way of arriving unannounced“, I argue that in order to strive for a situation where we are aware of all the options we have, what I call the options optimum, we should not only search for options, but also allow ourselves to find options we were not looking for. Serendipity. Now, if we really want to be good at that, we should probably not only be good at finding stuff we recognise, but also stuff we think cannot be. Right?

So maybe we should distinguish two types of serendipity (yes, I like structure, can’t help it), defined as:

  • Serendipity of the known: The talent to find stuff we were not looking for, but recognise as something we can use.
  • Serendipity of the unknown: The talent to find stuff we were not looking for, did not recognise and didn’t even know were possible.

Striving to develop these talents can probably make us less biased, better at weak signal detection, and eventually even more creative. The better our receiving capabilities (See post “Optimising my receiving, processing and sending capability“), the better we can make sense of things.

A wonderful example of people unconsciously ignoring observations to make right what cannot be is the following video by Derren Brown.

Person swap, Derren Brown

Serious disclaimer: I’m not pretending to be genious, this whole blog is just one big experiment doomed to fail beautifully! ;)

Optimising my receiving, processing and sending capability

What are the most essential skills, insights, competencies, mindsets, we need to have or get in order to be succesful and happy in life? Some might be obvious, but what are the less obvious ones?
To open up my thinking about this topic, I’ve made a schematic drawing with some elements (or categories) of what I think we need to have: we have to receive information, we have to reflect on that information and process it, and we have to be able to send new information again.
Obviously this is very simplistically put, but an interesting question would be: How can I optimise my receiving capabilities? And why is it important to do this? To have big eyes and ears?


Trainer vs. learner oriented learning

Following up on my previous post “I’m not a participant, I participate!”, let’s look at how we can shift responsibility between the learner and the learning facilitator or trainer. And how far should we go in giving freedom to the learner?

During a training on learning & development design* we discussed the above model developmed by Tannenbaum & Schmidt to describe a scale on which you can measure the amount of freedom vs authority you can have from/give as a manager. Probably, where it says ‘manager’ in the model, you could fill in ‘trainer’, and it can be used for a training setting.

*CIPD training by Don Greenwood

I’m not a participant, I participate!

When designing & delivering training programmes, my biggest challenge is to create a learning culture of shared responsibility for the learning outcomes with the participants. Or maybe I should say ‘facilitate’, rather than ‘create’ a culture like that. Sometimes it’s obvious that some participants are in ‘tourist mode’, just playing along with wathever the trainer is telling them to do, but not really into it. Others might even be in ‘resistance mode’, because they are only at the training because their manager sent them. Luckily most of the time, people are really participating, but -still- it could be more.

Actually, when I talk about ‘participants’, I think I’m already missing the point. Calling somebody that, is already nudging them into lean-back-mode. People should not be participants, but be participating. Opening up parts of a training programme, including the design, preparations and delivery I think facilitates a participative culture.

So, how to do that? Ah, that’s where it gets tricky. I think however, that -as a start- the following rules can be helpful when designing a programme:

 As I said, this doesn’t solve it all, but I think it’s good to keep in the backs of our heads (or maybe rather on the tips of our tounghs). So ask questions, instead of giving answers. 

Q: To all trainers, programme managers, ‘participants’, what do you think about this?

Interaction gear-shift

This idea is really quite simple: When working together on something, it might be worthwile to have keep in mind that the situation sometimes requires talking about the content, and other times about how we interact, or how we are feeling. You could call it the “interaction gear-shift”.

Interaction gear-shift

Just like asking the three basic what, how and why-questions (See “About in dubio“) I think it’s a good idea to shift gear every now and then, and move away from discussing content alone. Sometimes it helps to pause a content discussion by asking questions like “Ok…. how are we doing?”, or “I don’t feel good about this”.

Q: Do you recognise this? Any suggestions for a fourth- and a reverse-gear?

Stop controlling & predicting, be vulnerable

While researching concepts related to trust, like self orientation, reliability and intimacy, I stumbled on a talk by Brene Brown, called “The power of vulnerability”. I made a drawing of the things Brene talks about in her talk, and tried to make sense of it.

For the full talk, see the video below.

Brene Brown, The power of vulnerability (TED talks, 2010)


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