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The Power of Questions in Artifact Design

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Written by Michael Robillard for LeadingAgile.

Effective coaches use powerful questions, not to obtain answers but to stimulate thought so insight emerges and knowledge is generated.

Why not leverage this power by designing artifacts explicitly around questions? This will work for either formal artifacts used to capture and persist knowledge, or informal artifacts used to guide a conversation or workshop.

In a recent engagement this became so clear to me that I decided to capture my thoughts on this topic and some examples of changes made along the way to facilitate better outcomes for the particular group in question.

Questions Help Clarify the Intent of a Conversation

  • Getting from an artifact template to valuable knowledge is rarely a straight line, and people tend to simply regurgitate known information
  • Question-driven conversations will help surface latent dissonance and divergence
  • Helps the coach and stakeholders focus on where the knowledge resides and who may provide unique perspectives

Whatever question is asked, your brain goes right to work formulating answers. Use this to your advantage by asking open-ended questions. Since the brain will not be able to formulate an answer, deeper thought will result.

Some things to keep in mind for clarifying intent:

  • Mentally map out the journey and craft questions that serve as a compass rather than turn-by-turn GPS
  • Use open powerful questions
  • Based on the context, be willing to change the question to surface what may be hidden


Before: “Customers”

After: “Who is impacted by your work?”

  • The team in question’s thoughts in terms of the impact they are making rather than identifying “customers”
  • Within the team, refocusing on who they impact opened up the conversation to consider others who had not been viewed as “customers”
  • At the same time, other stakeholders were then identified and a good conversation ensued about the differences between customers and stakeholders

Questions Move the Focus from Results to Dialogue

  • Fields in a template or on a form appear to be “complete” regardless of quality as our minds will focus on filling in blanks, not the actual content
  • Questions can push a group beyond converging on a shared understanding to creating a vibrant, divergent pace for exploration and dialogue
  • Be aware of questions loaded with assumptions, initial results may continue to hide them

Some things to keep in mind for shifting focus from results to dialogue:

  • Wherever you can, replace artifact labels with a question
  • Use questions to discover new possibilities by challenging convention and challenging convergence
  • Review questions for loaded assumptions and either make them explicit or craft the question to remove the assumption


Before: “Customer Outcome”

After: “What stories would your customers tell after experiencing this value?”

  • Interesting conversations emerged about divergent views in the team about the true outcome they hoped to deliver
  • Helped to focus the conversation on the highest leverage dimensions of the outcome
  • Increased the energy of the entire group and even fed back into conversations about options considered

Questions Increase Engagement by Appealing to Credibility, Logic, and Emotion

  • Credibility should be apparent through the questions themselves
  • Logic can be expressed through the mental journey from answering one question to asking and answering the next
  • Emotional appeal can establish a state of receptivity for new ideas, for vigorous conversation, for openness to what is possible

Some things to consider for Ethos, Logos, and Pathos:

  • Use your expertise to craft questions based on principles rather than dogma
  • Design an end-to-end chain of questions that lead the group from surfacing what they do know, don’t know, and assumptions to meaningful dialogue
  • Craft questions that touch on the group sense of identity, self-interest, and passion. Engagement will improve and the resulting dialogue will be rich


Before: “Unique Value Proposition”

After: “Why is this team the best suited to work in this problem / solution space?”

  • Created energy in the team around why they were uniquely positioned to make the most impact
  • Helped a still forming team to rally around their passion and unique identity
  • Vibrant conversation that led directly to articulating a compelling vision for the team in short order

Wrapping Up

You must change the system to change the results – to change the results, change the thinking, to change the thinking, use questions. And use them not just in coaching; use them whenever and wherever you desire to influence the thought process and generate new points of view. The added benefit of not just using them to coach the group and facilitate the conversation, but to design or refine the artifact itself is the powerful combination of having gone through the thought process in the workshop and having the prompts persisted for reinforcement and continued refinement in the future.

Here are two partial iterations – of probably 5 total that I observed – of a template for facilitating a program level strategic conversation. However, the most impressive version I encountered was observing a new group take the most current template, and then update it even further to match how they needed to think through their particular strategy. That indicated to me that they embraced not just a template but an adaptive mental model for how to effectively frame the meaningful conversation they required.

Partial Canvas of an Early Version
Partial Canvas of a Later Version

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Published at DZone with permission of Mike Cottmeyer, DZone MVB. See the original article here.

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