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ATD Blog

Ask Outcome-Focused Questions, Not Tool-Focused Questions

Monday, May 11, 2020

Throughout my life, I have had the opportunity to take on many challenging roles at work and at home.

One of the challenging roles I play at home is that of “home improvement specialist,” where I support various home improvement requests assigned to me by members of my family. I’ve spent countless hours at home improvement stores looking for tools and supplies needed to complete each of my assigned projects.

At some point during my trip to the hardware store, I’ll be stopped by a well-intentioned employee and asked, “What are you looking for?” After a brief interaction, I’ll be pointed in the direction of the item I’m looking for (drill bit, paint brush, wood stain, and more) then left alone to continue shopping. I’ll head home with what I think I need, only to be back a few hours later with a new list of supplies.

The problem with this tool-focused approach is my end goal is not to acquire a garage full of tools and supplies (although my wife may argue there is sufficient evidence to suggest otherwise). My actual goal is to create an outcome that helps our family meet a core objective—a perfectly hung shelf to hold our newest collection of family pictures, a fresh coat of paint in our master bathroom to complement a bath or shower remodel, or a tree house for my kids to create fun, new memories in.

I’ve found my trips to the hardware store and the project effort that follows are much more efficient and effective when consulted by the employee who asks, “What are you working on?” My response to that question results in a tour of the store as we visit each section and collect the appropriate tools and supplies that I need for the projects I am trying to complete for my family.


I have learned to apply this technique to the field of performance consulting. I ask more outcome-focused questions instead of tool-focused questions because I know my business partners are not trying to stockpile an inventory of learning products.

When a business partner comes to me asking for a specific performance intervention (enhancements to an instructor-led training module, a new idea for an online learning course, a list of trendy learning technologies they just read about), I know they have a business outcome they are trying to create, and I take the time to ask a series of questions to learn more about their expectations.


For example:

  • What are the most important business outcomes you are focused on for the next three to six months?
  • What are you doing that is working well? What could be improved?
  • Looking at the list of potential improvements, where would a learning intervention be appropriate? Is there another intervention we should consider besides learning?
  • What behaviors would employees need to change or develop to achieve the business outcomes?
  • What knowledge or understanding is required to change those behaviors?
  • What do we know about your employees that will help us create an engaging experience that keeps them motivated?

There are many benefits associated with taking this approach. First, I can quickly determine if the need is best met with training or if a different intervention is required. Second, I can structure a robust set of learning experiences that leverage various modalities to meet knowledge, behavior, and business outcomes. Third, I start the project with my learning effectiveness metrics already defined. Fourth, the business partner walks away from our project with a solution aligned to their expectations and doesn’t return the next day/week/month upset because I didn’t address their needs. Finally, I am viewed as a trusted business partner and consultant instead of “the learning guy.”

This is only one of many ways to approach performance consulting. What are you doing to earn your seat at the table?

About the Author

Travis Thompson has spent his career in financial services, with roles in software engineering, project management, process improvement, call center operations, and talent development. He has developed and implemented strategies that enabled organizations to leverage their people, processes, and/or systems to create best-in-class products and customer experiences. He is focused on helping modernize the corporate and academic learning experience using technology, science, and innovation. Travis is actively involved in academic research involving the psychology of leadership, emotional intelligence, and personality preferences, as well as their impact on individual, team, and personal outcomes.

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Thank you for sharing! Very helpful for performance consulting.
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Thank you! This was very helpful . Very similar to what Appreciative Inquiry advocates - to know and understand where you want to go.
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