When adopting a performance consulting approach, some practitioners from talent functions find it challenging to change the types of conversations they have with clients. This is understandable, since often there are long-standing client relationships where conversations have been limited to discussions of solutions requested by the client. Performance consultants, in contrast, seek to reframe such requests into discussions of the results the client seeks to achieve, in terms of both improved employee performance and improved operational results.
Reframing requires asking powerful questions in an effort to influence the way a client thinks about the request they've presented. Consultants sometimes fear that such questions will be perceived as challenging their clients’ conclusions or even their decision-making authority.
There is certainly both a science and an art to the practice of performance consulting, and skillfully asking questions is part of the art. Consultants must hone their questioning skill to a fine edge to successfully influence their clients. However, there are a few bits of science (or at least proven-effective techniques) that can make asking new questions of old clients more effective and less daunting.
Part of the mental model used by successful performance consultants is called the "needs hierarchy." This hierarchy consists of four needs that are present in any organization, regardless of size or structure. From the top of the hierarchy down, these are business needs, performance needs, organizational capability needs, and individual capability needs. Organizational and individual capability needs—required attributes of people and the systems in which they work—actually sit side-by-side at the bottom of the hierarchy.
For clients to feel comfortable discussing these needs, consultants should enter the conversation at the highest-level need requested by the client, beginning questioning there before moving to other levels of the hierarchy. By doing so, consultants connect their questions with the mindset of the client and avoid illogical jumps in the conversation which might cause confusion or even irritation on the part of the client.
Consider the examples below. Let's step into the role of consultant in each situation and consider how we might form our first questions in response to the client requests.
A Typical RequestClient Request: "I need the sales reps on my team to do a better job diagnosing customer needs. I'd like you to design a training program to improve their questioning skills."
In this request, the client mentions two needs from the hierarchy. Accurately diagnosing customer needs is a performance need—something the client needs employees to do. A training program is a solution; specifically, an individual capability solution.
Appropriate First Question: The highest-level need from our hierarchy present in the client's request is a performance need. So, our first question should start there to reflect the mindset of the client. It could sound something like this: "What do you need sales reps to do more, better, or differently if they are to successfully diagnose customer needs?"
This question demonstrates our natural curiosity, and can yield specific behavioral information about the results the client wants to see. It has the benefit of starting in the mindset of the client while avoiding focusing on just one solution, which may not be sufficient to produce the desired performance.
Inappropriate First Questions: What if we chose a first question from some other point in the hierarchy? If we started with a business need question, it might sound like this: "If your sales reps were to do a better job diagnosing customer needs, how would that improve our operations results?”
This is a powerful question, but as a first question it sounds unnatural and forced. Our client might wonder if we understood the initial request, or feel that we're directly challenging their take on the situation. This question flows much more easily after we've discussed the performance gap and possible causes for that gap.
Now, let's try a question that starts with the individual capability need. We might borrow some language from our first question:
"What do you need sales reps to do more, better, or differently once they complete the training program?"
This question is very similar to the performance need question, but it assumes that a training program will be the only solution needed to improve performance. We may gain valuable insights from this question, but the rest of our conversation will likely focus only on the attributes of the solution the client has requested. Gaps in business and performance results almost always have multiple causes that require multiple solutions to truly close.
A Special CaseAs we saw in that last example, consultants should never start with a question that focuses on organizational or individual capability needs. Instead, requests that include only needs, or more typically solutions, at this level are opportunities to begin with a question that shifts the conversation to a focus on performance needs. Let's look at an example of this special case:
Client Request: "I'd like your help creating a new leadership development program for mid-tier managers to roll out in three phases."
This is purely a request for an individual capability solution. We must still start in the mindset of the client, but we don't want to get "stuck" on a solution.
Appropriate First Questions: "What have you observed the mid-tier managers doing that makes you feel they would benefit from leadership development?"
This question references the solution the client has in mind, but asks for information about current performance. Based on the information the client provides, a natural follow-up question would be: “Based on what you're observing now, what do you need managers to do more, better, or differently?"
At this point, the conversation has begun to move away from a single-solution focus, and we can begin to ask about the challenges managers are facing—challenges which will likely require multiple solutions.
Take the time to consider the mindset of your client when taking in a new request. A little effort spent determining the levels of need included in the request and planning your questions will certainly pay off in a more meaningful and productive client conversation.