Most professional firms, such as those centred on engineers, lawyers, doctors, accountants and information technologists, employ graduates in programs that last from 12 months to three years. The graduates are given opportunities to work in different parts of the business alongside experienced professionals. However, companies with such intake programs tend to miss the golden opportunity to develop their graduates through the practice of asking story-eliciting questions. Fortunately, this can be remedied with an afternoon of training and the implementation of a process to turn the new skills acquired into a habit.
Here’s where the opportunity lies. A habit ingrained in many graduates is to ask questions designed to help them complete the task at hand. For example, say you’re an IT graduate and you’ve just been given the task – your boss might even have used the STICC approach to task assignment – of developing a requirements document for a new, relatively simple software application. You’ve never done one before, so you start asking the experienced professionals you’re working with some questions: What does this type of document look like? Can you share some examples with me? What does a good outcome look like?
Now here’s the thing. Your experienced colleagues can, and probably will, answer your questions with their opinions and basic instructions, which only scratches the surface of what they know. They’ve done hundreds of these types of projects. They know what goes wrong, where the twists and turns are likely to appear. They have years of experience to guide them. But the depth of their responses will be guided by the questions you ask. If you get into the habit of asking story-eliciting questions, you will greatly increase the chances of valuable experience being shared with you.
A story-eliciting question is one that takes the person to whom it’s directed back to a moment in time when something remarkable happened, something they can recount as a story. Hearing this story, the listener – in this case the graduate – understands the context in which a particular approach was used and also gets a sense of the messiness of real life. Most importantly, they are more likely to remember the solution offered because it has been communicated as a memorable story.
Here is a little quiz. Which of these five questions might result in a story response?
1. What’s the best way of developing a software requirements document?
2. When have you seen a good software reqs doc being put together?
3. What are some of the important mistakes to avoid?
4. Have you ever seen a software reqs doc project go off the rails?
5. What happened?
Question 1 will most likely get you a dot-point list of dos and don’ts.
Question 2 has a good chance of netting a story because it directs the person to a particular moment in time. You know someone is telling a story if they begin their response with a time marker such as: ‘Actually, I remember doing one of these projects last year …’ Take a look at our post about spotting stories.
Question 3, like the first question, will probably get you a list.
Question 4 could get you the most important stories because we learn best from failure. But there is more to this than just asking a question. You also need to have built up trust with the experienced practitioner to get the full story.
Question 5 is my favourite story-eliciting question because you can throw it into a conversation whenever someone drops a hint that there might be a story to be told. Perhaps someone says, ‘God, we did a software reqs doc for Acme and it was a nightmare’, which is when you reply, ‘Really? What happened?’
There are many types of story-eliciting questions, and you will want to train your graduates to have a range of them available in their mental kitbags. They will also need to learn the art of asking such questions through practice rather than chalk and talk.
For one large engineering firm, we trained all their graduates in story-eliciting questions and then brought into the training room experienced professionals from across the company for the graduates to practise with. And so they would really remember the experience, we engaged the Melbourne Playback Theatre Company to give an improvised performance in which they played back the stories that the graduates had unearthed.
Now as we all know, a half-day training exercise is not enough to really change behaviour. So to make this new skill really stick, we work with graduates to show them how to fully form a new habit. We then work with the company to put in place a few simple processes to ensure that graduates keep asking story-eliciting questions.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:
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