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How to use learning questions

At IVAR, we recognise the value and importance of engaging people with varied viewpoints in our work, and listening to them. But knowing the importance of this and actually doing it are two very different things – and it can be difficult to know where to start.

One way to hear different perspectives is to share your own thinking – including things you’re still thinking through, even if it’s messy. This helps others join the conversation and see where there is space to shape thinking, bringing alternative views on the world and different interpretations of what’s happening. The main purpose of this is to collectively understand what we’re seeing and what this means we should do next.

To support this in our work, we have been exploring the idea of ‘powerful questions’, pioneered by our friends at the Center for Evaluation Innovation and further developed at the UK Evaluation Roundtable:

‘The kinds of questions we often pose — Did the intervention work? What are we learning about a particular issue? — may lead to information that is a useful input into learning, but they often don’t help us determine what to do next. Powerful questions, if answered, will make a difference in how we do our work.’

Find out more about powerful learning questions

We decided to draft a set of questions in relation to our strategy, to guide both our own reflections and quarterly board discussions. We wanted to move towards ‘so what/now what?’ conversations, and not get stuck in performance updates that tend to be more about ‘what’.

So, we asked Tanya Beer – our US partner on the Evaluation Roundtable – to facilitate a session for our Senior Leadership Team and two trustees, with the aim of developing these powerful learning questions.

One of the questions that we came up with relates to our goal of ‘being the best IVAR that we can be’. It was originally drafted as:

How can our internal workings enable us to develop and deliver work that is relevant, high quality and useful? 

Later we developed this, tweaking it to:

How are our internal workings enabling us to develop and deliver work that is relevant, high quality and useful? 

We asked Tanya for feedback on our revised version and she offered some insights that, in the spirit of making our own thinking visible, we think are really useful to explain both the theory and practice of powerful learning questions.

Tanya’s feedback

I want to reflect for a moment on the psychological aspect of a powerful learning question as a strategic question rather than an evaluative or knowledge-gathering question. The reframing of the question has turned into a conventional descriptive reporting and evaluation/data gathering question instead of a strategic puzzle question. It’s a subtle difference, but it really changes the tone of the conversation when you frame learning conversations in this way.

The purpose of the forward-facing and action-focused framing is that those questions invite the group into a generative process of jointly making sense of why something has happened, what insights that produces, and – most importantly – what that means for how you work going forward. Compare this to a conventional board meeting where trustees listen to your description and then say ‘well, that was the answer to the question’, and don’t really know how to help you think through what’s next or if you even really want them to do so.

The future-facing and action-orientated framing propels people to move from reflection mode (which is the space that boards in particular are already very comfortable sitting in as passive consumers of information) and into ‘so what/now what’ mode (which is where information gets turned into learning-as-new-capacity-to-act). It reminds them that the conversation is not just a reporting update, but rather invites them to make meaning and explore implications to improve the work together.

It does take some mental gymnastics to look backwards using a future-oriented question, particularly for people who are accustomed to bringing answers to the table about what has happened in the past. But powerful questions are not answered by the data and observations. Instead, the data and observations you bring are inputs into the learning-as-action conversation: ‘what do insights about the past mean for our future work?’

So, if I were organising a learning conversation with the board, here’s the flow of conversation I would want to have:

  • The strategic/operational puzzle we would like to think through together is: How can our internal workings enable us to develop and deliver work that is relevant, high quality and useful?
  • What we have experimented with over the past year is: [Describe strategies]
  • What we have observed about our experiments is: [Describe results so far – this is the question you framed above – for example, you could produce a report on ‘How are our internal workings enabling us (or not) to develop and deliver work that is relevant, high quality, and useful?’. But the conversation does not end there.]
  • What insights do we draw from these results so far and from others’ experience? [For example, in addition to learning from your own data, what insights do board members bring from their own experience around what it takes to set up internal workings in a way that unleashes the full potential of the organisation?]
  • Therefore, given what we’ve learned, going forward: [POWERFUL QUESTION] How are our internal workings enable us to develop and deliver work that is relevant, high quality and useful?

So, this is a re-orientation away from a question whose answer is a description about what has happened already, and towards a question whose answer is what should happen next. You still bring data and reflection on what has happened in the past to the table to inform the discussion by grounding it in what you already know, but the real point of the whole exercise is the ‘so what/now what’ question.

Learn more about powerful questions

At IVAR, we are currently experimenting with this way of framing learning conversations – both with our board and with our team of staff and associates. We hope that this piece helps you to think about whether and how this kind of question could be applied to your own organisation.

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