Harness the Power of Inquiry During Change
Written by Michele Quinn
Inquiry is powerful when applied properly, and it can help change practitioners at all experience levels improve in their practice. Some of the best discoveries and most innovative ideas come forward when you ask the right question at the right level to the right person. How should change practitioners adapt the types of questions we ask for different purposes and specifically in change leadership?
Effective Inquiry in Change Management
In change management, it’s essential to develop skills around asking questions effectively. As change leaders, we interact with professionals throughout our organization and outside it with contractors or other stakeholders who supply us with information to drive successful organizational change. The power of having specific questions and types of questions in our toolkit can lead to even greater levels of success than we have today.
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4 Question Types for Change Management
Each question type has a particular purpose, along with certain strengths, limitations and attributes that enable us to connect with people in different ways.
1. Open questions
Open questions have no set answer, enabling you to start a dialogue and discussion. For change leaders, these offer a way to get stakeholders, such as managers and impacted employees, to share their perspectives, offer their expertise, or brainstorm innovative ideas. The beautiful thing about open questions is that they lead to other questions—not just open questions, but other types.
Examples of open questions include, “How have you applied ADKAR in your organization in relation to this change initiative?” “Where have you seen excellent sponsorship?”
This openness enables broad discussions, particularly with groups, where you can get people to play off others’ answers, drive new questions that haven’t been asked, access different areas of expertise, and surface underlying assumptions.
The caveat is that these discussions can take time. To keep people on time and the right track, it’s important to have someone moderate the discussion.
2. Reflective questions
Reflective questions enable you to draw in different types of participants and can help when you’re training or working with different types of learners. These questions involve asking someone to think back through their own life, experience or career, and be willing to open up and share the experience, situation and learnings with the group.
“Where have you had success?” “Where have you learned from a mistake or a misstep?”
Reflective questions can draw in a quiet participant. They’re also very effective for resistance management activities, when you’re trying to understand what is holding people back during their ADKAR journeys.
Rather than asking these questions off the cuff, we should plan them. If I was using reflective questions to lead someone through a discussion about where they might be in their ADKAR journey, I would have a specific reflective question ready to find their level of Awareness. I’d have a particular reflective question focused on getting below the surface on someone’s Desire to adopt and engage with a change.
These questions start to uncover potential barrier points to change, and more importantly, their root causes. You can even use reflective questions to get an impacted person to share thoughts on potential solutions.
3. Leading questions
Unlike open questions, where people can take their response in any direction, leading questions focus on a specific topic or answer. I use them to check for understanding and gain agreement, and help the individual zero in on a certain subject or feeling.
During Prosci training programs, I might ask participants to "describe the three states of change” in their own words because I want to cover and discuss the states of change.
If I’m working with a sponsor, I might ask them to "describe the new future state for this 'must-win' initiative." I'm getting the sponsor to focus on the important description of the future state and what it will look like in the new way of doing business.
On a major change initiative, I might ask impacted teams, “What is the future state the organization is trying to achieve with this initiative?”
4. Closed questions
Unlike the previous question types, which promote discussion, closed questions acknowledge that the discussion has gone on long enough. They’re useful when facilitating a team meeting or when you're leading a focus group, and you've accomplished the outcome you wanted and need to draw the discussion to a close. The way we word closed questions usually leads to a head nod or a yes-or-no answer. For example, “Do we agree?” “Can we move on?”
Closed questions are powerful in that they have a definite purpose. The caution is, however, to use them at the right time and in the right circumstances. Be careful not to use closed question in a group when you want to elicit discussion or draw in quiet participants. I've been leading change and facilitating training for 25 years, and occasionally I still find myself asking a closed question when I really should have worded it as an open or reflective question.
So, if I ask the group, “Can you remember a time when you were uncomfortable or anxious or fearful about a change? Because I worded it with “can you,” that person may think that I'm not really asking for their insight. And I'm going to need to ask a follow-up question to really draw them in and share.
“Can you,” “Have you?” “Do you?” “Are you,” Would you?” These are all closed questions.
Inquiry in Your Change Management Practice
Asking the right questions is an essential skill for change practitioners. Here are just a few ways that building skills in effective inquiry can add value to your practice quickly.
Preparing, equipping and supporting sponsors
What questions do you need your sponsor to respond to, provide additional information for, and perhaps think about for the first time? With sponsors, well-planned questions with a purpose will help you identify their vision of the future state, understand why a particular change is happening, or reveal what's in it for the people being impacted.
Engaging the project team and people managers
Asking the right questions of the project team is important, first and foremost, because they know what's going on with the solution. Because employees prefer to receive messages from their managers, asking the right types of questions of the project team informs you about how the change will impact their teams, so you can prepare people managers to answer questions. "Who will be impacted by this change?" "How will their day-to-day work change?" "How different is the new solution from the way people work today?"
Building a sponsor coalition
The sponsor coalition comprises other organizational leaders who have a connection to or influence with one of the impacted groups of people being asked to work differently. I might start by asking, “How do you intend to support this change?” “What advice would you give your team that you've learned during your career?” It would also be helpful to ask them to "share an example of a past success as a leader of the people side of change."
Build Support and Commitment for Change Management
One of the key reasons a change leader needs to build and develop their power of inquiry is that when individuals feel comfortable with the person speaking with them and asking questions, they're willing to open the door to what they really think and feel. Posing the right questions helps open that door.
In my experience, people truly appreciate the opportunity to be heard and have their views acknowledged. Creating this environment builds trust and rapport, which goes beyond the current situation or change, and contributes to a culture of open dialogue. When you start to create those layers of trust in an organization, there's power to it.