Plain English questions for analysis

In part 1 of this posting I referred to Robin Hoyle’s 6 A’s and Clive Shepherd’s 20 areas of enquiry, Here I offer a selection of some of the questions I have typically asked of a client.

I don’t always ask all of the questions, but I am always alert and listening. Lots of information comes spontaneously. Whether or not they are a response to a specific question, I aim to record all answers and I look for patterns and links that might lead to a “cocktail” of solutions in the right places. The classifications of “Learner, Learning and Logistics” which Clive has quoted are a nice, simple way of beginning the necessary sorting and grouping of factors that affect performance. After many years of using it I still find Mager and Pipe’s worksheets and flowcharts to be invaluable. Another tool I’ve found useful in this context is MHI Global’s (formerly Huthwaite) consultative selling method, known as SPIN (Situation, Problem, Implication, Need”.

Plain English Questions for Analysis.

My own favourite opening question is “Why are we here?”, but there are always many alternative ways of phrasing the same question. I’ve used “What are trying to achieve?” “What’s up?” “What are you trying to accomplish here?” “What’s going on?” “What seems to be the problem?” “Tell me your story.” Then I hold in my head the poem by Kipling, that is so well-loved and often quoted by trainers and sales managers:

“I Keep six honest serving-men (They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.”

(Rudyard Kipling, From The Elephant’s Child.)

I work as I might with a jigsaw, looking for things that have a common colour or shape – here is a “what”, there is a “how”, here is a “who”, etc. Some questions I might never ask, and I’m always ready to invent new ones. My aim is to complete a framework like the border on a jigsaw, and then to fill in a picture with no pieces missing. My notes are almost always more like a mind-map or a picture than a text.

Before you read the questions I have found to be most productive, I stress that there is no standard system for asking these questions, and they are absolutely not to be asked in a fixed order. I also have in mind the wisdom of sales trainers who would remind me that I have one mouth and two ears and that I should use them in those same proportions
(2 listening : 1 speaking) when I’m engaged in diagnosis.

A short selection of typical “Plain English” questions for analysis


What seems to be a problem or needs to change?
What do you need to see happening that’s not happening now?
What do you think is the consequence of that?
What is the scale of the “problem”?
What will be the biggest advantages of making the change?
What will “finish” look like?
What will we hear people say?
What will we see people doing in a different way?
What do you believe is stopping people from meeting the standards you need them to meet?
What solutions have you already tried?
What happens if we do nothing about it?


Why is it a problem?
Why should we invest time, effort and resources in this?
Why is this the right time to deal with it?
Why should I get involved?
Why has the problem not been fixed before now?


When is the problem most likely to reveal itself?
When is the problem most inconvenient?
When is it least inconvenient?
When do we need the change to be initiated?
When do we need the change to be complete?


How well are people doing?
How do you know?
How can we get reliable, objective and scientific evidence of the current situation and how it affects the business?
How much is under-performance hurting?
How will we prevent matters from slipping back to as they were?
How can we win support for making a change?
How will we know that the change has happened?
How will you know when any problems have been fixed (what will you be seeing, hearing, measuring etc.)
How could the change be made apart from through Training?
How were people trained to do the task in the first place?


Where does the need for change appear most obvious?
Where have we dealt with this kind of situation before?
Where can we see the accounts of others who’ve already done what we’re considering doing?
Where might we find a new slant on this, for example in another organisation, sector, profession or domain?
Where might we find people whose work already meets the standard we want from everyone?


Whose performance needs to change?
Who’s involved?
Who’s at the heart of this (problem, change, vision etc.)?
Who is accountable for the current situation?
Who is responsible for it?
Who are the “high performers?”
Who are the “low performers?”
Who are the witting contributors?
Who might be unwitting contributors?
Who is most affected?
Who is losing sleep over this?
Who stands to gain most from making the change?
Who might block the change?
Who might champion the change?
Who has the capacity to supply resources, people or information that will help me to understand the situation and change it?

To conclude

Use your ears and eyes to seek out how things are. If you must use your mouth then know that you will achieve the best rapport and so get the best results when all talk is just natural conversation. Empathy is a key ingredient that makes it possible to reach a high level of trust, confidence and effectiveness. Step into the shoes of your customer and experience their world at first hand, feeling their pride and their pain. If you don’t care about uncovering the real reasons behind an apparent training need, then you might as well pack up and go and do something more useful elsewhere.

By pgstips

Plain English is just as important in Analysis as it is in the Design and Development of learning solutions.

In the past few days two things crossed my desk and set me thinking.The first was a blog by my good friend and colleague Clive Shepherd. He wrote:

“As a learning professional, it’s absolutely vital when you’re taking a brief from a project sponsor that you ask the right questions and are persistent in making sure you get a clear and satisfactory answer”

The second was a link to a short video by the excellent and down-to-earth Robin Hoyle who has managed to distil the entire process of setting a learning and development into 6 A’s. Robin’s A’s form the framework of a strategy; they stand for:


I won’t elaborate on this – you can hear the man himself explaining them if you follow this link.

What I like is the simplicity of these two pieces of advice. Both are sincerely striving to simplify a thought process that is anything but simple.

Clive proposed a list of essential questions for analysis.

Arranged in a logical order the questions are set within four headings:

  1. Need
  2. Learning requirement
  3. Learners
  4. Logistics.

(It is heartening to see one of my own attempts at simplification – the 3 L’s – used in earnest in this way and forming the basis of the analysis phase for the More Than Blended Learning design model.)

To set a strategy that works, or to solve a defined problem it’s not good enough to be driven by your own whims, aspirations or prejudices. You need to get at the nuts-and-bolts realities of the organisation you are serving. It is rather a good strategy to ask some rather good questions. Clive’s list and Robin’s A’s seem to cover the right areas of enquiry, but what are the “right questions” to ask, and does it matter how you ask them?

First on Clive’s list is the question:

What goal is this intervention intended to support?

Followed swiftly by:

What does this target population need to be doing in the future that it may not be doing now if this goal is to be achieved?

Robin’s first A is Aim and his second is Audience.

Picture yourself as a busy manager, a nuts-and-bolts pragmatist, fretting over some kind of problem or challenge at work. How will it feel if smart consultants arrive with their clipboards and a script, and begin to sound as though they are reading from a textbook with a foot firmly wedged in your door? Terms such as performance requirement and target population and intervention may be very precious to us as L&D pros, but perhaps there is a risk that we might be using them as “thieves’ cant” to prevent the non-professional from fully understanding what it is we are trying to do on their behalf. Even deceptively simply words such as aim and audience are loaded with a special meaning that may not match what is in the heads of our clients and customers. Ask any two managers to define the word “aim” and there is every chance you’ll get three different answers!

I like plain words and simple models; they make it easy for me to understand complex ideas and manage complicated procedures such as “Needs Analysis.” Above all they help me to get on the same wavelength as the people I believe I am trying to help through learning and development strategies and products. I have seen both Clive and Robin at work, and I have heard them speaking about their beliefs and approaches. The magic they perform is definitely not all about running through a list of prepared questions. Nor is it truly about persistence – a double edged sword that can leave a blunt gash in a relationship if it crosses the line over to dogmatism and nuisance!

Onlookers often see more of the game than the players do. Clues are there to be found, but we shouldn’t expect them to emerge naturally just because we ask a set of questions, especially if those questions are too formal or rigid in style and tone. Robin and Clive are highly experienced and respected analysts. What they do is quite subtle. It may be difficult to notice and describe, and so it’s not that easy for a novice to copy. Somewhere in the things that a manager has to say to them, or perhaps on the walls, in the choice of books on the client’s shelves, in the working environment there are clues as to what makes a business or part of a business tick, and to what might be getting in the way. Whether someone does, or does not offer you refreshments can reveal more about the deep beliefs and values of a team than anything pressed in aspic or etched in stone on the walls.

a bloodhound is a different beast from a dog-in-a-manger

I often think of a performance consultant as a soft, sentimental gumshoe detective, seeking out all the clues; going where the action is, sniffing the air and making genuine attempts to sense the real factors that shape what’s going on. But beware – a bloodhound is a different beast from a dog-in-a-manger. It is important to remove from your mind any preconceptions about either the problem or the solution.

I am not arguing against checklists, but I do feel there is some risk that the questions themselves might direct the lines of enquiry along pre-drawn lines. There is also a risk that an analyst/designer is so focused on their own questions that they neglect to listen with an open mind, in a forensic manner and with proper attention to the answers. I know many well-shod consultants, who make a good living with their models and matrices, balanced scorecards Johari windows and the like. The tools that have always served me best are a seeing eye, two very well pinned-back ears and some good plain English. In the 1970s TV detective series, Columbo, the lead character would make some telling remark after the prime suspect thought the conversation was over. Typically he would start to walk away, and when the suspect felt relaxed and relieved, the detective would turn back and say, “just one more thing.” What followed was always very revealing. In performance consultancy too, some of the best are “pick-up” and “follow-on” questions, and the “Columbo Close”. And that’s where I’ll finish for now – with a classic “Columbo Close”. Here it comes:

“Oh by the way – did I mention that I have a good store of my own favourite questions for analysis? I’ll sort through a selection and share them as Part Two of this posting.”

By pgstips