Thursday, March 14, 2013

Opening Up With Questions

I facilitate a lot of workshops and planning sessions both on my own and with other planners. Sometimes I work with museum teams I know fairly well and sometimes I work with new groups. No matter what the agenda or how short or long the process, starting off on a good footing is critical to inviting lively discussion, strengthening the group, and developing comfort with and confidence in the process.

I know, because sometimes a workshop starts off just plain wobbly and requires a whole lot of energy to get it back on kilter. Preparation and lots of pre-workshop communication is critical as is a well-developed, timed agenda with outcomes. More and more, however, I find that opening questions have an unaccountably large and favorable impact on how the 4 hours or 3 months can go. They can accomplish what a timed agenda, perfect slides, and good treats cannot.

Opening questions have a lot in common with good questions and with hard-working questions. But positioned early in a workshop and cast as they are, opening questions act as a catalyst moving the group and the work forward in relatively brief time.

For Openers
While questions are commonly used throughout many types of workshops to invite people to think and dig into the work at hand, they can serve other purposes when they launch a session. They help create a sense of community among people who need to work well together as a group on projects that require open back-and-forth, sharing perspectives, and collaboration. Opening questions can also become an informal way of gathering data in areas relevant to the work at hand.

Opening questions are folded in with introductions at the start of a workshop. Invited to respond to a question crafted for the topic, each person around the table offers something from his own experience that brings him into the group and into a frame of mind for the workshop. Sharing at the very beginning builds relationships and begins to weave a group culture. An opening question is an invitation to participate and one that everyone can accept and respond to in a personal and meaningful way.

Offerings contribute to a shared experience for the group and sometimes have a strong presence throughout the process. Often, during the course of the session, someone will illustrate a point or propose an idea and link it explicitly to a feature in one of the opening stories. In a workshop of several hours or a strategic planning process of 6 months, a sense of connection strengthens the group, encourages lively exchange, and helps in navigating the inevitable rough spots along the way. Even with a tight agenda, this is time well spent.

There’s no formula for selecting opening questions. A few considerations, though, have been helpful to me in developing and using them.

Cue questions to the work at hand. Doing so brings participants into the area or topic the workshop is exploring and in ways they might not have considered. For strategic planning, orient questions to the museum’s track record or its position in the community. For learning frameworks, tap into memories around childhood or life experiences that made a difference. For exhibit planning, draw on vivid experiences from play, nature, messing around. For a session on creating outdoor play spaces for a museum or nature center, an opening question might be, What do you remember about your favorite outdoor play place as a child and how it felt and smelled?

Questions come from everywhere. Memories and related stories, mine and others’, inspire many opening questions. Comments overheard from visitors at a museum or a child at the store suggest lines of inquiry. I also pick up pieces of questions that I overhear that hold promise. This morning I heard a snatch of a question on the radio, “Which part would you optimize?” I don’t know what it referred to, but I plan to hook it up to another question for a strategic planning retreat.

Capture, record, and post. Sharing the stories verbally is essential but doesn’t go far enough. Write them down for all to see. Post the sheets of paper around the room and keep to post at future sessions. Responses to questions can be long, expressive, and full of striking images. In a recent exhibit charrette, one line was referred to several times over 2 days: “I can remember now what it felt like when my father lifted me up above the breaking waves.” Written on big paper, stories become part of the group, its culture, and its work.

Questions beget questions. An opening question can have follow up questions that prompt or invite elaboration. A piece of a question that worked for one group might be a promising kernel for another group or may suggest a new direction for future questions. And so a set of opening questions grows and evolves. 

Questions in Play
Without quite realizing it, I have been collecting questions and thinking about what they have brought to projects and participants. Here are some examples that I return to for the next round of questions. You are free to use–combine, recycle, or vary.

• The opening question for a science center team planning a large gallery for young children was: What vivid memory do you have from when you were 3, 4 or 5 years old? Where were you? What were you doing and Who was there? In going around the table there were memories and stories of building forts, playing with cats, getting together with family. The last memory had barely been recorded when one member of the group eagerly identified four qualities present across these memories: being outdoors, messing around with loose parts, being active and on-the-move, and relationships. These qualities, which came from the team itself, shaped the planning criteria for the gallery.

• The invitation to a children’s museum core planning group that was updating its learning framework was: What memory of yourself as a child do you have that gave you an insight into yourself as a learner? Memories flowed of someone realizing that she could direct her own learning, of interests discovered that endure today, persistence that resulted in success, and memories of making a paper maché otter. As the group shaped its image of the learner, identified focus areas, and listed engagement strategies, it had varied examples of learning to draw on as well as vivid, personal memories of what it felt like to be a learner.

• In launching a strategic planning process, the opening question for the science center’s planning team asked, What was a moment for you as a child that was illuminated by science – when you were intrigued, dazzled, delighted or helped by some aspect of science? A board member shared his experience. Chuck talked about spending time as a child with his grandfather in his garage, puttering, fixing things and learning about how things work. Science learning encouraged by his grandfather’s knowledge and example made Chuck want to become an engineer. And he did, becoming the head of the top ranked automobile plant in the country.  This became “the power of science” story that shaped the strategic vision

• For a children’s museum exhibit master planning process, I wanted museum staff and board to keep what is fascinating to children top of mind as they considered and shaped exhibit experiences. We started the 2-day workshop with this question: If you could recreate something from your childhood in an exhibit for children at CDM, what would it be? Why? The experiences remembered were everyday moments steeped in the senses and intensely recalled. They had nothing in common with a list of exhibit topics or activities typically suggested in exhibit planning. Instead, someone shared the excitement of taking a risk, another relived the feeling of an authentic moment, still another remembered the strength of parental connection, and several recalled sensing the power of place. No one, however, felt the need to answer why they would recreate the moment.

A Life of Their Own
Really good opening questions are what I think of as questions people didn’t know they were dying to answer. They tap into something significant a person is eager to revisit and share. Somewhat oblique, these questions sidestep expected, prepared, rehearsed responses. Something flows. A really great question can take on a life of its own. In these cases, I have been very tempted to toss out the rest of a workshop agenda and follow the threads and interests of what people have shared. After the set of stories about a vivid memory from childhood, for instance, I wanted to ask, “Tell us more about when you chased after your sister with a stick…”

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