Workflow with Precision: The Art of Asking The Right Questions

Facilitating workflow and business process improvement is a science and an art. In its scientific clothing, workflow is about identification, dynamics, variables, equations, testing (simulation), metrics (inputs, outputs, throughput) and the forces mitigated by effective process engineering. Of course, there’s more to it. In its artistic clothing, workflow and business process analysis is not unlike psycho-analysis. There is a problem-state (as-is) and a desired-state (to be). In order for the psychoanalyst to facilitate change, he or she must build rapport and apply some rather artful techniques in order to gently yet effectively produce a new outcome. The art is in the questioning.

Questions as Art

Asking questions skillfully is grace. It’s fluid and flows. Resistance is softened in the listener/answerer and the truth of conditions is allowed to safely emerge. Skillful questioning opens the door to willingness and honesty. Artful questions progress logically yet they lack the icy cold of reason and logic. Artful questions also lack the abrupt, mechanical sensation that scientific questionning prompts in people. These are, after all, people we’re dealing with.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI)

AI was developed by David Cooperrider as an organizational development approach and methodology that would engage people with their own change and performance. AI is a unique way of asking questions and envisioning the future that fosters positive relationships and builds on the basic goodness in people and the reality of their conditions. In the process, it enhances the system’s capacity for collaboration. AI uses a 4-stage process:

  1. DISCOVER the organizational processes that work well.
  2. DREAM and envision processes that would work well in the future.
  3. DESIGN, plan and prioritize processes that would work well.
  4. DELIVER the proposed design (implementation).

The core idea with AI is to build solutions around what works. Instead of focusing all your energy on fixing the 1% that’s wrong, AI focuses on how to create more of what’s already working. The approach positively acknowledges peoples’ contributions in order to increase trust and alignment.

Precise Questions – NLP

Bandler and Grinder – founders of NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) developed an approach that engages people in developing clarity in the sensory dimensions of their current and future states. This approach is much more complex but suffice it to say, by focusing on what processes will look and sound like and how individuals will know when workflow is flowing, the future state becomes crystal clear. Primarily, the NLP approach seeks to challenge the underlying assumptions in what people throw at you. For example, when people share generalizations like “we always stack all the enrollment forms over there” the NLP approach would question “ALL the enrollment forms?” and “ALL the time?” and “over WHERE SPECIFICALLY?”. Further, the NLP approach would ask gentle questions like “Is there ever a time when you wouldn’t stack them over there?” These are over-simplified examples to be sure but the point is, by seeking precision in a gentle way, you get a more refined sense of what people want to experience.

The Art of Discovering Beliefs

Facilitating workflow and business process improvement is about overcoming resistance to change. Sharon Drew-Morgen does an excellent job of teaching us that people inherently want to maintain homeostasis. They don’t fear change. They fear disruption of the status quo. I think she’s right on and I am a strong advocate of discovering why people believe the current state can’t be overcome. Questioning into the barriers and obstacles – including attachment to the current state – is crucial to gaining understanding.

Taking the time to acquire some proven questioning skills will go a long way to producing much more than a new process diagram. Artful questions produce answers that are truthful and most likely to become actionable quickly. That’s buy-in!


3 responses to “Workflow with Precision: The Art of Asking The Right Questions

  1. I dunno about using visualization to create a positive future. It wouldn’t surprise me if an NLP professional would have to spend more time reframing a streamlined process for an newly uncomfortable employee then helping them imagine what its like.

    That makes some sense because discovering root causes requires a lot of data collection.

    In Grinder and McMaster’s Precision process, managers apply questions and whiteboard techniques to guide staff to discover current problems and generate desired solutions. The desired solutions satisfy constraints that are discovered and utilized throughout the Precision process. The final product is a full description of what the problems are and how to solve them in order to reach the desired state. That’s NLP too, and involves managers applying rapport skills to elicit full and honest answers from staff. However, hypnosis-style manipulations are not really required for the Precision process to work.

  2. Hi Noah. Sorry for the delay in getting abck to you. I am not getting to this with the same frequency as I would like.

    Your comment is right on. In so far as the book is concerned, solutions satisfy constraints based on data collected. What I am suggesting is that there may be and are times when a facilitator can move people in a direction akin to “imagining” a future state. That requires suspending concepts and notions of “how things work today” and beliefs around “how things must work”. There is a methodology called Idealized Design, for instance, that fits very nicely when a group or manager become fluent in all their constraints and the problems associated with their current state. Facilitating an “imagined” or “idealized” future state is one approach to overcoming problems. Not the only one, mind you. Generally, it enables people to begin innovating. Innovation is a complex undertaking with many important dimensions and principles, to be sure. Letting people out of “the box” for a while simply lets them “see” what’s possible. Opens the appature of their lens.

    You’re right in suggesting that this may prove confusing to any new employees and I certainly agree that hypnosis and manipulation wouldn’t be cool.

    As a certified Master Practitioner of NLP, I have worked with individuals and groups to facilitate change using a nice blend of intuition and reason, data and imagination. If positive change implies manipulation in helping people overcome rigid adherence to beliefs based solely on the data they have at-hand, then I think it’s a worthy undertaking done with integrity and consent. However, to your point, the problem or stuck state (as is) is entirely a function of the data they have at-hand and the solution state will absolutely have to be converted to something reasonable and logical. Intuition and idealizing the solution happens somewhere in the middle.

    I believe that real break-through can happen when people are stretched beyond what they know and beyond what they have data to support. Leading people gently into what is possible – letting their own intellignece and intuition shine – can produce some startling outcomes. Of course, this manner or approach is not called for all the time. Sometimes, you can turn a screw with a screw-driver. Sometimes, you realize that the screw you’ve been trying to turn is really a door knob. Sometimes, you discover you can obviate the screw entirely by taking another approach entirely. Real-world data serves you in each instance.

  3. Oh, yeah, of course you’re not going to hypnotize an audience to accept a company’s vision. Though now that I think about it, CEO’s would probably love you for it! And pay you pretty well, too. 😉


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