Asking a great question sets the stage for great things

Using Abstraction Laddering: How to Build the Right Question and Stick to it

Week 6 of “Think Alone, Think Together” a Facilitation Essentials video series

In this week’s episode I tackle the idea of Problem Framing using Abstraction Laddering and using Parking Lots to keep things on track. Hate reading? Love videos? I’ve got you covered. This is a write up of my weekly short video series, which you can watch here:

Previous Weeks are all here, for your viewing/reading pleasure.

How to help people get to a better Question

Last week I talked about using your visual facilitation skills to build a whole-room agenda…using the space your workshop is taking place in to help the team focus and move forward.

Agendas have an IN and an OUT: Make a Parking lot part of your wall space

The implication of a visual agenda is that anything that’s not IN the agenda is OUTSIDE of that agenda…so make that explicitly clear, and post up a parking lot. The Parking Lot can be a powerful tool to help quiet workshop participants who are overtalking or getting into the weeds or off topic: Just ask them to write their concerns down and get them up on the wall, safely ensconced in the parking lot. They will feel heard and the team can stay on track.

It’s your job as a facilitator to close the loop and address the items in the parking lot! Otherwise, people will lose trust in the process. Just saying. 😢

Frame your questions better with Abstraction Laddering

My favorite go-to way to use abstraction laddering enforces the “Think Alone, Think Together” principle and helps me get a snapshot of where a team is on a challenge.

How might I get in Shape?

Using the question of how to get in shape as an example, I ask participants to write down 3 reasons WHY they have wanted to get in shape and 3 approaches to HOW to get into better shape. I then invite them to cluster their whys and hows, having a visual dialogue on what level of the question to address.

Let’s Break it down.

Some common reasons Why people want to get into better shape:

Have more energy

keep up with their kids

Feel better about themselves

Fit into their clothes.

Each of these reasons why are more “abstract” goals. And we can make them more abstract by asking why again and again:

Why do I want to have more energy? Because it feels good!

Why do I want to feel good? Well…that’s where the questioning ends! The answer is “Becasue!”

But *How* to have more energy? There’s a lot of ways to get there: Sleep better, eat better…

How do I eat better? Go Paleo or Raw Vegan!? Get Blue Apron instead of takeout?

Getting clear on what “level” of question we’re addressing can take a thorny question and make it more specific, more solvable. I’ll give a more real example: Do we go after our core customer or try to get a new demographic? Can we do both?

This question came up during a 2-day problem framing workshop I ran recently for a major fashion brand (I’ve blurred out an identifying sticky note) It was a thorny question, and a quick Abstraction Laddering exercise helped the team begin to unpack different approaches to this issue.

The right question is always about finding the dynamic tension between the giant, abstract goals (notice the $$ at the top of the diagram?) and the nitty gritty approaches to the problem. How far into the weeds are we going? Is this meeting about giant goals or detailed actions?

A lovely and goofy video about Abstraction laddering can be found here, which breaks the process down more explicitly.

How Might We…

Towards the end of the workshop, we had parsed out the questions into some much clearer approaches. Each was framed in the form of “How Might We”…this is the magic bullet, go to, all purpose Design Thinking method of problem framing. Why?

How implies that there’s a possible solution…

Might implies that we have lots of options. It reduces pressure…

We implies that we’re all in it together…

The group landed on three different personas in the challenge: The core customer (him), his girlfriend or wife who might buy for him (her) and the floor associate. Each had a key How Might We question. Each question was a possible direction for our innovation sprint. Each was a valid road to go down. Each was a much clearer question than where we started. Each question got more directed, focused energy from the team, instead of the confused, stuck energy the first question evoked.

The Inviting Question

How Might We stop them in their tracks was focusing on signage and messaging. How Might We create the Valued brand staples was about designing an item that people fell in love with, over and over again.

Which was going to motivate the team for the next few weeks of the innovation sprint? Which will really move the needle for the business if we get it right? This comes down to the idea of the inviting question…a question that creates energy, that builds enthusiasm. I’m excited to see which way the team goes on this!

Did you make it this far? You’re awesome. You also might like to subscribe to my newsletter, where I talk about this stuff every week.




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Daniel Stillman

Daniel Stillman

Host of and @gothamsmith co-founder. Often riding bikes to the ocean.

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