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Four Types of Questions L&D Should Be Asking Business Leaders to Uncover What They Really Need

Nihal Salah
Aug 07 2020

We talk a lot about how L&D need to get better at designing learning that has measurable business impact.

And we know that L&D should be taking a leading role in diagnosing business needs.  

But if you're like many L&D folk I speak to, you're probably bombarded with requests for courses and content. You're on what Don Taylor calls the 'content treadmill'. And sometimes it feels like there's no graceful way to get off....


You're under-resourced and probably feeling overwhelmed 😩 

So how on earth do you take a step back and take a more proactive role in assessing the business needs? 

Well my friend, it all starts with asking questions...

Reignite Your Curiosity

Ever notice how a curious five-year-old will ask lots of questions about pretty much everything?

The constant questioning of “Why?” and “Why not?” reflect that innate curiosity that children have. Sadly, as we get older it tends to disappear. 

Harvard Business School did some research that found 70-80% of children's dialogues with others were comprised of questions. But only 15-25% of interactions adults were having consisted of questions. 

This just shows how much importance we place on having the answers as opposed to asking questions! 

But the reality is the value of the solutions we come up with when we don't ask questions is inferior to what we could come up with if we engage with others with a genuine sense of curiosity to learn about their world, challenges and goals. 


Why Ask Questions

The purpose of questioning is to work with others in the business to better understand the underlying issues you’re both trying to solve for.

Learning how to ask the right questions will also enable you to build stronger partnerships with colleagues in other departments. 

Think about it. It's human nature to love talking about our goals, achievements and the challenges we face. The more you ask people questions, the more likely they are to open up and share with you.  

Remember though, asking questions is not about proving a point of view right or wrong. It’s about uncovering needs and problems. 


Four Types of Questions L&D Should be Asking

The art of asking questions is one that the world of sales have mastered.  So why reinvent the wheel? 

One of the most popular models used by sales teams is SPIN selling.

There are four types of questions used in SPIN selling that can be used to uncover business needs and problems that L&D can solve for.

  1. Situational Questions 
  2. Problem Identification Questions 
  3. Implication Questions
  4. Need-Payoff Questions


Situational Questions

Situational questions are used to get an understanding of where your colleagues in the business stand. 

You're gathering information about how things currently work, how success is measured, what processes and tools are used and about  performance.

Here are some examples of situational questions: 

  • What metrics are most important to you? 
  • How are you measuring the success of x? 
  • What's the process for x?
  • Are some of your people performing better than others? 
  • What tools do you currently use for x? 

Keep in mind that these sorts of questions are giving you crucial information to work with, but they give little value to your business colleagues. They already know the answers to these questions and they’re not learning anything new yet. 

So think carefully about the situational questions you ask. You don’t want to be asking too many so focus on gathering the information that’s most important. 


Problem Identification Questions

Problem identification questions are what help us start the problem-solving process. 

At this stage, you want to try and identify potential needs and gaps.  

  • How do your team currently approach x?
  • Does this approach always work? 
  • What happens when this approach doesn't work?
  • What new processes or procedures have been implemented recently?
  • What are your top performers doing that your average performers aren't? 


Can you see how broad these are in terms of their scope? The aim is not to get one word answers but rather, to get them to open up and share the goals and challenges.


Implication Questions

Once you've uncovered a problem, you now need to work with your business colleagues to understand how urgent and serious it is.

This is where implication questions come in. 

The purpose of implication questions is to uncover the impact is of the issue you’ve identified. It also helps you determine why it’s so important to solve (and the cost of not solving it). 

Implication questions will also help you in considering the scope of the solution. 

Here are some examples of implication questions: 

  • If you didn't have [x issue], would you/your team be able to achieve x? 
  • Does x [issue] stop you/your team from achieving your goals of x? 
  • How is x [issue] impacting your team?
  • What is the cost of x [issue]? (financial or on people's morale) 

Implication questions are a great way to get your business colleagues to think more broadly about the underlying issue and how they can be solved.

More importantly, it’s shifting the thinking away from “give me a course” to recognising the opportunity to work in partnership with L&D to drive business value.


Need-Payoff Questions

The aim of need-payoff questions is to encourage your business colleagues to think about alternative solutions to the problem (that may not be a course).

You want to shift the conversation away from the problem and start discussing potential solutions. 

Some examples of solution questions are: 

  • Would it help if we ....?
  • Would solving the problem by doing x, help you achieve your x goals? 
  • Would x make it simpler to achieve x? 
  • Would your team find value in x?


Guiding Principles to Get the Most out of Your Questions

Be Prepared and Do Your Research

Do as much research as possible before you meet with your business colleagues. This will ensure you don't ask them questions that you could've easily found the answers to yourself.

It will also enable you to use the time with your colleagues to probe and go deeper with some of the issues.

Start with Easy Questions

Always start with questions that are easy to answer and help make your colleague feel comfortable. 

Imagine going on a first date and being asked if you’d like to have kids or what your thoughts were on marriage! You'd probably be looking for the nearest exit! A better conversation starter would be a question like 'where are you from?'. It’s easy to answer and helps get the conversation flowing. 

Ask Probing Questions

If you feel like you’re not getting enough detail in the responses, you can use probing questions to get your business colleagues to elaborate and expand on what they’re saying. Some examples include: 

  • How do you mean? 
  • What do you mean? 
  • In what way? Or How so? 
  • And then what? 
  • How does that work? 

I especially like ‘How do you mean’ as a probing question as it really gets people to elaborate and explain what they mean in more detail. But most importantly, it’s not a threatening question. 

Be thoughtful when asking ‘why’ questions. 'Why’ questions often put people on the defensive. And that’s the last thing we want to do. 



I’ll be honest with you. When I first started using this type of questioning, I was extremely nervous. But as I like to say, action cures fear. The only way to get over the nerves is to give it a go. 

The truth is people love talking about themselves and their goals. You just need to ask them the right questions. 

So the next time you’re asked to create a course or deliver training, engage in a conversation and use the questions we’ve discussed to uncover what the real issue is. 

You’ll find that the response is more positive than you expect. 

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