Team not performing? Stop telling and start asking.

Team not performing? Stop telling and start asking.

The Problem

How many times have you had a conversation with your team, your colleagues or your family either one-on-one or in a meeting where you communicated your expectations, your vision, your wishes for how a problem be solved or a plan executed?

And then you asked, “Do you understand?” or “Does that make sense?” “Do you agree?”

The answer was a definitive “Yes,” followed by nodding heads and smiles.

“Great, we’re all set.”

And then…what you expected is not what happened. The meeting wasn’t set up how you wanted, the customer wasn’t communicated with in the way you thought they should be, the problem wasn’t solved, the customer need wasn’t met, things didn’t go how you planned, and your vision fell flat.

“But I told them what I wanted! I’ve told them a thousand times!”

Telling is Not Learning

I taught an improvement workshop a few weeks ago to a group of 25 students. We discussed the Improvement Kata model, how to practice, what to watch out for, what works, what doesn’t. There were lots of examples, nodding heads, questions, comments, students answering each other. All evidence of learning happening.

And then we started practicing. Students applied the model by building and toppling a domino pattern according to specific requirements. The coach and learner went to the story board (a visual representation of their challenge, target, actual conditions). The coach – following the Coaching Kata script – asked the first question, ‘What is your Target Condition?’

The learner stared blankly with confusion at the story board, pointed to the ACTUAL condition and said, “Is this it?”


It was only at that point that both me and the coach could see what this particular student had learned.

I met with a new client a few weeks ago and we spent an hour with a small team explaining the 4-step Improvement Kata pattern 1) Challenge 2) Current Condition 3) Target 4) Experiment). I gave them visual diagrams, we discussed the model, I gave examples and we practiced with a puzzle.

I said, “OK, we have completed Step 1, setting the challenge. Now, it is time for Step 2. What is it?”

The Team: “Experiment?”

NO! (The answer – as depicted on the diagram in front of them – is Current Condition)

Had I not paused to ask a question (What is the next step?), I would have told them the next step and assumed they knew. My question revealed their knowledge threshold.

You may be thinking I’m a bad teacher or that my students weren’t paying attention. My materials are too complex or that the Improvement Kata pattern is too complicated. I don’t believe that. The conclusion I continue to come to (also backed by research on how we learn) is that learning takes time, and you can only know what someone understands when you ask questions, and then stop talking. Watch and listen.


My friend and colleague Tracy DeFoe recently explained an educational concept to me called “constructivism.”

Constructivist teaching is based on the belief that learning occurs as learners are actively involved in a process of meaning and knowledge construction as opposed to passively receiving [emphasis mine] information. Learners are the makers of meaning and knowledge.” Source:

Telling alone does not equal teaching, but of course it is faster, and thus much preferred method of developing our teams.

It is efficient. Or at least it seems that way until defects occur, quality suffers, and customers complain.

So, if you can’t expect learning to occur from simply telling your team what to do, how do I impart knowledge? How do I develop my team?

Stop Talking

Step 1: State your expectations as simply and clearly as possible.

Step 2: Stop talking. You need to understand what the other person is thinking.

Step 3: After you stop talking, ask one open-ended question such as,

“What are your thoughts about what I just said?”

“What’s on your mind?”

“Those are my thoughts about what we need to achieve. What are your thoughts on how we achieve it?”

Step 4: Stop talking. Listen.

Step 5: Compare what they said to your expectations.

Step 6: Give instruction again. More clearly and simply if needed.

Step 7: Repeat.

Finally, remember your role in developing your team and consider the adage…if the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.




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