Ali Girard

Well, you see, we want people to eat more

Ask the Right Questions (To Get the Right Answers)

Recently, I have been mulling over an idea: effective change management is less about providing solutions and more about asking the right questions.

Some people might raise their eyebrow at this – and wonder why they’re paying their change management consultant so much if they’re not there to provide solutions – but let me make my argument:

Change managers are facilitators. We use a set of tools to enable groups of people to successfully transition from one state to another.

Change managers are not specialists in the content of the change (technological or otherwise). While it may be useful to have experience in certain contexts (healthcare, education, finance, etc.), the change manager will always know less about the business and the project than those around them, even if they’re a permanent resource.

That’s why knowing how to ask the right questions is such an important skill for change managers. We need to know how to draw out the right information from existing resources in order to guide organizations through change successfully.

There are a lot of articles out there about how to ask good questions. Here are my top three tips for asking the right questions when planning for change (using a pineapple to illustrate my points):

Look for assumptions.

People are self-centred. They frequently assume that others will see things the same way that they do once the knowledge has been transferred because it is simply “common sense.” (Why doesn’t communication work that way?). Being an outsider on a project team can be a benefit for this reason, allowing you to question the assumptions that others are making in a non-confrontational way. Sometimes all you need to do is repeat their assumption back to them and ask if it’s true.

“The pineapple is in the field because more people will see it there than if it were in the refrigerator.”

Keep an eye on the quiet ones.

It’s easy to pay attention to the reactions of those who dominate the conversation. However, sometimes the people least willing to speak have the most valuable contributions because they may disagree with dominant opinions. If you notice someone react to a statement (especially if they are a project stakeholder) invite them to speak or ask them about it privately, depending on the context of the situation. The information that they provide could warrant further investigation.

“I already tried putting the pineapple in the field, and people just stepped on it instead of eating it!”

Dig deeper at dismissive statements.

How often do you hear that “so-and-so is just being difficult” or that “they just don’t want to change”? People are rarely hard-headed simply because they enjoy annoying their colleagues. These explanations are the project equivalent to “because I said so.” Said out of frustration, not only are they unhelpful in the moment, they can be destructive over time as the resentment builds. When you encounter one of these phrases, start with a simple “why?” and follow the thread to the root cause from there. Knowing the details of past conflicts or underlying fears can completely reshape the approach you take to resistance.

“Lacey is really avoiding the pineapple because she is allergic, not because she doesn’t see it.”

Do you have any tips to add to the list?

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One Comment

  1. Maryanne Henderson |

    Change management and instructional design have a lot in common. Great article!


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