Systemic questionnaire technique
At the end of May, my colleague Giller published a wonderful blog post here on systemic questioning1, which began with what I describe in my workshops and lectures as “a declaration of love for systemic questioning”, namely a book by Carmen Kindl-Beilfuß entitled “Questions can taste like kisses “2. There is really nothing to add to the colleague’s words, except perhaps a very concrete application that offers beginners an introduction and experts a structured platform.
About 15 years ago, I was preoccupied with the question of how I could integrate my then freshly acquired systemic questioning technique into my everyday work as the future head of a new Project Management Office (PMO) – this is how I came up with the idea of what I now call “Systemic Questionnaire Technique” in my lectures and publications and which has been refined again and again since then.
What is the systemic questionnaire technique?
The systemic questionnaire technique is a standardised interview technique by means of which several people are interviewed on a topic using the same question scheme. The questions are worked out in advance and are systemically based. A predefined question structure is created and the qualitative answers become comparable through the question grid.
Using the prepared questionnaire, various people are now interviewed by the interviewer, whereby the usual systemic follow-up questions to concretise the answers are possible and sometimes even prepared during the interview. Afterwards, each interviewee receives the questions and the documented answers for review. In this way, misunderstandings are recognised and respondents have the opportunity to correct answers afterwards.
Circular questions of the form “What do you think your colleague, your boss, your employee would say to this question?” are also used. This makes the interviewee aware already in the interview that there is not only his/her own perspective on the topic, but possibly even those that contradict it. This is particularly interesting when perspectives of different people are not or at least partly not compatible.
In my view, the method is excellent for collecting expectations and rough requirements (for projects, new organisations, transformations, etc.). If you interview the important stakeholders in this way, you receive well-founded material for your own approach, for example, but also for management presentations.
Three special types of questions
Every interview begins with information about the interviewee and, above all, the respective role in the system. Even if you know this in principle as the interviewer, the self-assessment of the interviewee and the chosen formulations are important information. This is followed by the questioning of the content.
Scale questions provide information on the positioning of the interviewee (e.g. on the assessment of the importance of the initiative or the evaluation of the current situation).
Change questions (“Assuming the initiative is a success, what is different (3-5 aspects)?”) indicate desired changes and should be as concrete as possible; follow-up questions often help here (“What exactly do you understand by “my situation has improved, what do you specifically attribute this to?”). These simple questions can be used to put together small sequences. First a scale question about the position, then the description of the change from the interviewee’s point of view and with circular completion.
- On a scale of 0-10, how important is this project to you (0 = which project?, 10 = I have been waiting for such a project since my first day in this company3)?
- What would have to happen for your rating on the scale to improve by one stroke? Possible question: What could you contribute?4
- How would your boss answer this question?
Another type of question in the systemic questionnaire technique should not be missing in any interview: the aggravation question. It is my personal favourite. The aggravation question is the question about what would have to happen for something to get worse. The question is culturally unfamiliar and therefore causes irritation, which in my experience leads to honest answers without political tactics. And it can promote creativity; many people are certainly familiar with the headstand technique, which is particularly well suited to putting complainers into a creativity mode. The question is particularly effective if it triggers personal concern: “What exactly could I (the interviewer) do to make your situation worse as a result of the initiative / move down the scale by one value?”.
Please don’t be surprised, this question often has to be asked several times, precisely because in the business context we rarely deal with the fact that something is getting worse and certainly not that a contractor is also contributing to it. But it is important, because it shows us the limits of our actions and designs.
Recommendations for the systemic questionnaire technique
A combination of several small question sequences from the previous section and an aggravation question already form a simple and effective questionnaire. Important, topic-related aspects may be highlighted more than once and at different points. Especially (apparent) contradictions are exciting in the questionnaire. Either I, as the interviewer, have not yet understood something sufficiently, or there really is a contradiction. People are quite ambivalent in their ideas and expectations, but we are not always aware of this, and the realisation of this helps the questioner and the interviewee. Such (apparent) contradictions must be addressed in the interview without reproach (“I’m not sure if I’ve understood you correctly here, earlier I understood <…>, now I hear <…> – for me there is a contradiction here.”).
With such a simple setting, even beginners can start with the systemic questionnaire technique. I found it very helpful, especially in the beginning, to have the questions prepared and in writing in front of me. These simple questions, well combined, already bring to light a lot of information and expectations. I still use a very trivial sequence, as I described in the previous section, for initial clarifications of assignments and expectations. If you ask several people, you get a first overview of the different perspectives.
With a little more experience, the spectrum of the systemic questionnaire technique can be expanded:
- Still quite simple but highly effective, for example, is the question of what would be missed after a change has occurred (“Assuming the initiative is a success from your point of view, what would you miss?”). People tend to suppress this aspect and are later disappointed because something from the old world is missed. The very question of this triggers reflection and a weighing up between success and possible loss.
- I rarely use the miracle question presented by my colleague Giller in the questionnaire technique, and when I do, it tends to be spontaneous. It probably has to do with the fact that I don’t believe in widespread miracles in most initiatives 😉 – but I do in individual developments.
- But I like to work with metaphors, such as “Which animal comes to your mind that symbolises your possible resistance to such an initiative?”. Especially in the case of initiatives that are “ordered from above”, resistance is often hidden and comes to light in the form of these little animals, about which one can then have an excellent and very humorous exchange.
- This leads us directly to the next point. Systemic questions are highly effective and bring out the hidden and unwillingly said. This is only possible if you assure the interviewee of strict confidentiality and stick to it. This does not mean that you are not allowed to pass on and evaluate the statements, but please do so anonymously so that it remains unclear who has taken which perspective or made which statement. This applies all the more if you (want to) collect criticism of the management. And sometimes you have the good fortune – as I did right at the beginning – that an influential critic would like to be quoted by name, in which case confidentiality may of course be lifted by mutual agreement.
- At the beginning, I like to ask if there is anything the interviewee would like to address during the interview and make a note of it. At the end, I ask whether it has been sufficiently addressed or whether something is still open. My experience is that the corresponding question, only asked at the end of the interview, is not sufficient, because perspectives / aspects often get lost after intensive conversations.
- When working through the questions, the interviewee often gives information that I actually assign to another question. In the interview, when I ask them, I then mention the aspects mentioned and ask if there are any others. This gives the interviewee the good feeling of being listened to and not just schematically questioned.
- In the case of more extensive questionnaires (lasting approx. 1-1.5 hours), I not only summarise the answers in the written documentation that is sent to the interviewee for correction, but also compile and document 3-4 core messages that I have understood in this way. Most stakeholders are particularly concerned with certain aspects of the topic, and this makes them more tangible. It is also a suitable way of checking whether I have understood the interviewee and his/her concerns.
The systemic questionnaire technique is a highly effective method for the qualitative, structured collection of expectations, requirements and limitations of different stakeholders of an initiative. Even though systemic questioning has now arrived in the business context, its consistent, multi-faceted use is still unfamiliar. Irritations such as aggravation, resistance metaphors or the reference to possible losses generate perplexity and honesty instead of political calculation.
It is essential for the quality of the content of the results that you stick to the questions even if the answers are initially evasive or superficial (e.g. buzzwords or fashion trends) and keep asking until you have a very concrete idea of your counterpart’s point of view. Example: “How do you know that the organisation has become agile? What in your daily work routine has changed then?”. Writing it down with the correction loop also supports the goal of deep understanding.
By preparing the questions in advance of the interview and informing your counterpart that you are using a questionnaire as a template, which also serves as documentation, even people who are not yet familiar with systemic questioning are able to conduct such an interview and thus gradually build up questioning competence.
Last but not least, it is simply fun. And this applies both to the preparation of the questionnaire – here the door is wide open to creativity – and to the interviews themselves as well as their evaluation. As a result, it broadens your perspective and that of your counterparts. I find all of this immensely enriching. Just give it a try yourself.
Astrid Kuhlmey will be happy to provide you with further material on the Systemic Questionnaire Technique she has developed in German. Simply write to Ms Kuhlmey.
 Conrad Giller: From why questions to miracle questions
 Carmen Kindl-Beilfuß: Fragen können wie Küsse schmecken
 In scale questions, the values at the margin are always defined as “extreme” so that they are not chosen by respondents.
 With this little trick, you as the interviewer send the idea to your counterpart that he/she can definitely support.
Astrid Kuhlmey has published more articles on the t2informatik Blog, including
Computer scientist Astrid Kuhlmey has more than 30 years of experience in project and line management in pharmaceutical IT. She has been working as a systemic consultant for 7 years and advises companies and individuals in necessary change processes. Sustainability as well as social and economic change and development are close to her heart. Together with a colleague, she has developed an approach that promotes competencies to act and decide in situations of uncertainty and complexity.