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Coaching: What’s the question

When Leaders take the time to get input from their people it’s because they believe the input will have value.

I recently facilitated a client’s team meeting where the focus was on “Rebooting” the whole team so that they can work together successfully over the coming year to deliver their goals. Of course working together successfully sounds obvious, what else would the team do?

However the team had been suffering from a sense of exhaustion, a lack of resources and an inconsistent approach to achieving their goals.

My client wanted to get his Leadership team’s feedback on their current organisational structure: was it fit for purpose? Could they deliver their goals using this structure?

We agreed that a good method for doing this would be to use the Affinity Diagram process.

Although my client was very comfortable with this approach he seemed to get stuck every time we discussed: what is the question you are trying to answer? We talked through, ‘what do you need to think about when designing the question?’ and he came up with the following reminders:

  • Explain to the team “what we are trying to accomplish”
  • Check if the phrasing of the question creates an assumption. Asking the question ‘what’s wrong with our current structure?’ could lead the team to assume there is a problem when actually there isn’t.
  • Is the question limiting the options? Asking: “Which of these 2 structures is going to be the most successful for us?”, might limit the team to consider only 2 suggestions instead of being able to be creative and suggest a number of different options
  • Check for consensus. Everyone needs to agree that we’re discussing the right question, which means being clear at the beginning on what we are trying to accomplish and referring back to this as we discuss the question.
  • Check for understanding – everyone needs to understand the question! He felt he had a clearer idea of what he was looking for and after a few attempts came up with a potential option to propose to his team, “How do we enable the organisation to execute our strategy successfully?”
  • We checked the question against each of his reminders, so far so good, until he got to the final point: Check for understanding.

I asked him how his team would understand, who is ‘we’, who or what is the ‘organisation’, what is the ‘strategy’ and what would ‘success’ look like?

“Surely everyone knows that and if they don’t I’ve got bigger problems than just my structure!” my client stated.

In his mind it was obvious what he was talking about. He lives and breathes this topic every day so it seemed a curious challenge.

As an outsider, I wasn’t clear whether the ‘organisation’ was the company or his division, and in Peter’s mind ‘organisation’ referred to the actual organisational structure, so with just 2 of us in the room, we hadn’t achieved understanding!

An operational definition of the question itself would ensure everyone understands the question.

I asked him for his reflections on the process we had followed;

“As we worked through the possibilities for both the question and the operational definition I realised just how much opportunity there could have been to spend time debating the wrong question. In fact I’ve been in meetings where that has happened. What this did for me is create a structure, in advance, to ensure that we have clear understanding and direction. I was slightly concerned that it was taking a bit long, now I can see that spending time on up front planning will save a lot of time on the day.”

When Leaders take the time to get input from their people it’s because they believe the input will have value.

How important is it then that time is spent in advance using a structured method to ensure the questions Leaders ask people are understood, unambiguous and unlimiting? The more Leaders practise this approach, the more value they will get from the feedback they receive and this can have a profound and exciting impact on their organization.


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