Recently I was working with a company’s executive team in reviewing the progress we had made together in solving a longstanding, difficult problem that had stunted their growth for years and slowed their momentum. It was rewarding to see their excitement as we reviewed the results of our efforts together. It was a good team meeting and an encouraging feeling to share our successes. I should have left well enough alone, yet I recognized that the true learning and best growth had not gone far enough. I posed three follow-up questions:
- “How did this problem get into your organization in the first place?”
- “How many people in the company realized that this problem existed and could have pointedit out soonerand allowedit to be resolved sooner?”
- “What other problems should you now notice that might be connected to this past issue?”
In other words, don’t just fix the obvious problem without evaluating how the entire culture is affected. Don’t accept it as just another typical business issue, another bullet dodged; use what you learned to ask better questions.
After discussion of these three questions, it became clear we had only done part of the work needed. Not surprisingly, several of the senior level managers acknowledged it was a problem they were aware of and should have addressed earlier, however, the culture of the company and their overwhelming pressing schedules had made it unacceptable to do so. Does this sound familiar? Well, so much for the celebration, but I wasn’t through yet; I offered one more question:
“How is solving this problem going to affect how you personally operate going forward?”
You might wonder why I was so intent on irritating an otherwise good and loyal client who had come to treat me as a trusted advisor … the fact was that is exactly the position a trusted advisor should take.
Salespeople who do think of themselves as trusted advisors most often can only ask one-dimensional questions to elicit one-dimensional answers. Salespeople do this a lot. My favorite example is a thermostat that measures ambient temperature against a standard setting that turns the heat source on or off accordingly. The whole transaction is binary and, therefore, one-dimensional.Harvard Professor Chris Argyriscalls this single loop learning.
Argyris also describesa next step called “double loop learning,” which takes an additional step and turns the question back on the questioner. It asks follow-up questions. In the case of the thermostat, for instance, double loop learning would wonder whether the current setting was actually the most effective temperature at which to keep the room and, if so, whether the present heat source was the most effective means of achieving it. A double loop process might also ask why the current setting was chosen in the first place. In other words, the double loop learning asks questions not only about the objective facts but also about the reasons and motives behind those facts. I call it the context of the problem.
I useyet a third loop of learning, which occurs when you make it personal and apply it to yourself. How does this change or impact you? What makes this significant in your world? Selling should be a triple loop learning experience.
Loop One: Questions should be focused on how to solve your client’s problem and help them secure a successful solution.
Loop Two: Questions should be focused on how to help your client understand the context of the problem, how and how long it existed, and other things it is connected to. Helpyour clientto see a bigger sense of what you are doing for them.
Loop Three: The questions help your client understand how they will be different personally because of the work you have done.
If you can lead your client through a triple loop learning curve, you will be far more than just the next salesperson that comes through the door; you will quickly and truly be viewed as a trusted advisor.