Performance Engineering 101: Questions to ask in the discovery phase

Continuing my exploration of evolving workplace learning to performance engineering. I want to share some approaches you can take to create a performance engineer mindset.

First up, how to get to the real root cause of a problem by asking better questions.

Too often I see workplace learning teams take requests like a McDonalds drive thru. A line manager comes up asks for a hamburger and our good old L&D team asks if they want fries with that, and returns 6-12 months later with the final product.

But does anyone consider if a hamburger is what the line manager needs? Not so much.

The lack of probing and asking questions to understand the problem at hand is killing your organisations ability to do stuff that actually makes a difference to the performance of your people.

Here’s a very simplified example of how 90% of workplace learning teams relationships with stakeholders works:

In workplace learning teams it has been the norm to play the role of an order taker and not by choice of course. 

Many of us have been trying to establish a different approach, one that’s centered on performance consulting. Being seen as a trusted consultant to get to the root cause of problems. Which is encouraged if you are in the pursuit of avoiding the act of creating even more problems to solve an undefined problem.

You may, like me, find that most things that a business will proclaim are an L&D problem are not an L&D problem. 

But, I get it. It’s hard to have to influence every person that throws themselves at you with the “I have an L&D need” to this way of thinking. We all have to pick our battles after all.

So, how do we change this?

It’s consulting time

As performance engineers, our goal is to get to the root cause of the problem, remove barriers and enable improved performance.

We do this by asking the right questions to unlock a conversation and reflection in our stakeholders.

To move from order takers at a drive-thru to performance consulting, we want conversations to look less like “Can you run a 3 day workshop for my team on collaboration because they need some training and it’s one of my performance objectives for this year.” to “Hey, we’ve got this problem and we’d like your help at looking at some possible solutions.”

Remember, just because someone tells you they have an L&D problem, doesn’t mean they do. It’s our job to help them unpack their problem and diagnose what they actually need.

Let me share some of my essential questions that I ask during the discovery phase of any learning/education related project to diagnose that need:

  • What are we trying to solve?
  • Why is this important?
  • Do you have any data on that?
  • What’s your evidence?
  • How will you measure x?
  • What’s your metric of success?
  • What exists today?
  • Are your audience aware of x problem?

This is the complete reverse of what most stakeholders envisage when they’re looking for L&D support. What they expect you to say is “Yes, I’ll find a course for you on that and we’ll get people signed up asap” – the classic box ticking scenario.

When taking an approach like this, we must recognise that we’ll more than likely meet resistance to an untraditional method. You’re going to have to challenge a number of pre-existing limiting beliefs and stakeholders just wanting to give them “training”.

Some of these beliefs may include:

#1: Only a training course can help me and/or my team.

How to challenge this…

Walk through this scenario to the endgame – will this change anything or will you end up at the same place, doing the same things 6 months later. Tell the right story to demonstrate if any desired change will occur with this delivery method.

Take an evidence based approach.

#2: I don’t have time to do a short discovery with you

How to challenge this…

Again, highlight the benefits to identifying and solving the root cause problem by the stakeholder partaking in a very short (I’m talking 20 mins here) conversation so you can gather the right evidence to provide the best guidance.

This will save them time in the long run.

#3: I need my team member to recognise this behaviour, so they need to do an e-learning module or go on an instructional course.

How to challenge this…

Hold the stakeholder and/or manager accountable to their responsibilities as a people leader. Simple things like I need my team members to be less direct and more aware of others emotions can be solved through coaching.

A course or instructional intervention won’t solve these issues. Where a good old human conversation can. This is a classic case of managers trying to avoid a perhaps difficult conversation by using L&D interventions as a plaster and hoping that the end users realise the error of their ways somehow.

You might just find that in working through a discovery phase with probing questions, that the claimed “L&D” problem isn’t an L&D problem at all.

The philosophy of performance engineering

In a previous post, I defined the mission of a performance engineers as follows:

“To help remove barriers to essential knowledge, work on solving workforce performance challenges and ultimately make sure people can get the stuff done to help them and the business thrive.”

To start off in the right way and truly understand if what we face is an L&D/performance problem, we can use these questions to dig deeper and gather evidence.

So, next time you get a request, instead of asking “Do you want fries with that?” Ask better questions to get to the real root cause.

Good luck my fellow performance engineers! 


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