I’ve sat in many meetings as a learning consultant where the stakeholder enters with a clear idea of not only the problem that they face but also their opinion on the development solution to this problem. They have collected valuable data on an issue and have taken this one step further by deciding what learning activity should be applied to resolve it.
This is a perfectly understandable approach from a stakeholder. After all, they have spent a lot of time diagnosing the issues that affect them and their team and will have a vested interest in implementing the learning that will help fix the pain point. However, as a learning consultant, it is your responsibility to implement the best solution for the stakeholder, not just the one that they suggest. This takes careful negotiation and persuasion skills.
At the start of any consultation, rapport building must be at the forefront. This means that you should demonstrate your willingness to listen to the stakeholder and take on board their concerns and validate their opinion on the solution. I find that, after the pleasantries, a good opening statement/question is…
- “I’d like to start by understanding the problem fully. Once we have established this, I can set about developing the best learning solution for you. What is the issue as you see it?”
This question is an offer for the stakeholder to get the issue off their chest. It will allow them to explain the problem in their own words and to provide background information that their diagnosis has provided. It also helps to demonstrate that you are ready and willing to listen to the concerns of the stakeholder and that you have their best interests at heart.
It is at this point that you will usually receive direction on the learning solution from the stakeholder. This takes some careful persuasion to direct the stakeholder away from jumping into ‘solution’ mode. You can redirect the conversation by asking a question such as…
- “There’s some really useful information there. I want to ensure we develop the best learning solution for this issue. Are you happy for me to ask you a few questions?”
Once you have established your intent and have shown that you want to work towards a solution with the stakeholder, you can focus on the questions that will truly identify what the learning outcome should be. You are almost ready to work through your consultation questions, but first, it’s best to summarise your understanding…
- “I’d like to start off with a summary of what you have told me… [summarise the key points] …Is that correct?”
If there are additional points provided at this stage, take a note and then move on to your consultation questions…
- “What is happening now that you think is causing this problem?”
- “What works now?”
- “What doesn’t work now?”
Your aim here is to really establish what is actually going on. The answers will help provide you with a clear insight into the real issues.
Another key element that is often overlooked during this process, is the audience that needs to be involved in the learning intervention. Stakeholders have a tendency to ‘sheep dip’ and ensure that everyone is included in the learning. The trouble with this approach is it will reduce engagement considerably, as those that do not really feel the need for the learning will be quite negative. Another issue with including more people is the relative costs.
It’s useful to ask the following questions to identify the best audience for the learning…
- “Who does this issue affect?”
- “Who is already achieving results in this area?”
- “Who would benefit most from development?”
Once you understand the problem fully and have identified the best audience, it’s time to consider the desired outcomes. This means finding out, ‘what good looks like’ and establishing the skills gap. You can do this by asking the following questions…
- “What would you like people to do differently as a result of this learning intervention?”
- “What would it look like if everything was working perfectly?”
- “How will you measure success?”
- “Which employee is a model for how this should work and what can we learn from them?”
- “What data can you provide that will help us target specific developmental requirements?”
Next, you should consider the solution itself. This is where you begin to identify what method of learning will work best to solve the issue at hand. Focus on the following questions…
- “Following our discussion so far, do you have any alternative views on how you might address the issue you face?”
- “What else do you think we need to know to help develop the best solution possible?”
- “What absolutely has to be included in the learning?”
- “What budget do you have to meet this need?”
- “What workplace limitations might get in the way of a learning intervention?” (this may include things such as shifts, workplace cover, holidays etc.)
- “What time do your employees have to dedicate to this learning?”
- “What learning format do you think would work best to meet this need?” (this is an area where you will likely need to give your expert advice)
Once you have a clear idea of the expectations and limitations of the learning intervention requirements, you can begin to focus on making an action plan for this scope. At this stage, you should provide some closing questions that will summarise and wrap up this part of the consultancy. These would be…
- “So, the plan seems to be …XYZ… Does that sound about right?”
- “What are the next steps for each of us? By when?” (they should provide any further information or documentation mentioned in the process and you should gather the data and build a development plan)
- “What might get in the way of us moving things along? What can we do to overcome this?”
Explain that you now expect to go away and create a broad outline of the learning development plan. This will provide basic details on the structure of the learning intervention, the key points, what you expect to be covered and how it will be delivered. It’s also important to include the key learning outcomes that you gathered from the early part of your consultation. The majority of this data has been collected from your notes in this meeting. This summary will be provided to the stakeholder in a timely manner.
It’s important to point out that the flow of your conversation will dictate whether all of these questions should be asked. Where a question has been adequately answered elsewhere or is not relevant, you should feel happy to skip the question. You may also find that a question leads you into a series of alternative questions, which is fine. Use the structure as a guide, not a rule.
Although your consultancy will be question-driven, in that you are attempting to gather as much useful data from the stakeholder as possible, don’t be scared to provide advice and input as and when required. Sometimes your stakeholder will need some direction, so providing your knowledge and experience will assist them and give them clarity.
By following a clear structure to questioning during a learning consultation, you will ensure you cover every aspect needed to develop a great learning product. This approach will put you in charge of a consultancy conversation, meaning the solution will be led by you as the learning expert. It also helps your stakeholder recognise you as someone working to support them, rather than just being a resource that does what they say. After all, you’re the expert.
Download these questions in a handy list form here. – Learning Consultant Questions
This article was written by Andrew Wood, MD of Trainer Bubble.