Makeover: How to write challenging scenario questions

We’ve all seen scenario questions that are too boring or easy. In fact, here’s one:

A member of your team is often an hour late to work on Monday mornings. What should you do?

A. Ask the team member why they’re late.
B. Refer the team member to the Employee Assistance Program for counseling.
C. Dock the team member’s pay for the missed hour of work.

How could we improve this question? Let’s look at some ideas. (We’ll look at a lot more ideas for strong scenarios in the scenario design workshops I’m giving soon in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Sydney.)

1. Focus on a specific, real performance problem

Our scenario question is weak because it isn’t based on an analysis of what’s really going wrong. Instead, it’s based on assumptions about what people are probably doing wrong.

So our first step in the makeover is to look more closely at the actual performance problem.

Girl walking on railroad trackLet’s say that our business goal is this: “Employee retention will improve 10% by 2016 as all managers use the Friendly Face at Work management model.”

We set this goal because employee turnover is high, and during exit interviews, people said managers were too harsh. We then paid a consultant $70,000 to tell us to use his patented Friendly Face at Work model.

In action mapping, every activity we write supports a specific, real-world behavior that people should perform but are messing up somehow.

In this case, the behaviors we want to see are the behaviors in the consultant’s model. The one we’re focusing on now is, “When a team member consistently fails to reach a standard, encourage them to share why they’re struggling.”

Our managers aren’t doing this. Why not?

2. Find out WHY people are messing up

In our analysis, we discover that managers already know they should ask a struggling employee what’s up. The real problem is that they don’t ask because they worry about sounding intrusive.

They’d be more comfortable if we helped them phrase the question appropriately. That’s the behavior they should be practicing: asking the question.

3. Find out in what CONTEXT people are messing up

The first draft of our question is boring because it’s so generic. Nothing in the real world is that simple. So with our subject matter expert (SME), we’ll add some realistic complexity. Here’s one possible rewrite,

Jake has worked on your team for two years. In the last two months, he’s arrived an hour late on most Mondays. He doesn’t seem as cheerful as he used to be, and a couple of times you’ve noticed that his eyes appear bloodshot. You’re pretty sure he’s married and you remember signing a congratulations card for his new baby about seven months ago, but you haven’t heard anything since then.

You ask Jake to come into your office after lunch. When he arrives, his eyes look bloodshot again, and he fidgets with his hands.

How do you start the conversation?

A. “You’ve been a great member of the team for two years, so I’m surprised that you’ve started coming in late. Is something going on?”

B. “I’ve noticed that you’re coming in late on Mondays, and I’d like to help you get back on track. What can we do to help you get here on time?”

C. “I want you to know that no matter what the situation might be, I’m here to help. Could you help me understand why you’ve been coming in late?”

This still isn’t the best question in the world, but it’s at least more subtle and realistic than the first draft. And, importantly, it focuses on what managers really need to practice: how to phrase the difficult question.

Tweaks for context

In addition to changing the focus of the challenge, we made the following tweaks:

  • We gave people names, which in a way also gives them a face as readers pull up a “Jake” from the database of people in their brain. My Jake probably doesn’t look like yours, but he has a face.
  • We provided cues that may or may not be relevant — the bloodshot eyes, the changed mood, the baby that we haven’t heard about lately. No management challenge takes place in a vacuum.
  • We put people’s words in quotation marks, adding voices to make it more real (and, in this case, to model specifically how the question should be asked).

Finally, another cue that we wrote a more challenging question is that it’s not obvious (to me, at least) which answer is correct. We have to understand the consultant’s Friendly Faces at Work model to know how we’re supposed to phrase the question.

If we can write scenario questions without the help of a SME, we’re probably writing questions that are too easy. The SME will help us write a subtle question and help us make clear through feedback which option is correct.

Scenarios require a lot of SME help, so you might want to prepare a steady supply of donuts or chocolate for your expert. In the scenario design workshop, we’ll also look at ways to quickly and efficiently get the expertise out of your SME’s brain and into a scenario.

What do you think? What has helped you write more challenging scenarios? Let us know in the comments.

All photos in this post (c) iStock

Design challenging scenarios that your learners love with my workshops this September and October in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Sydney. The first workshop is on Sept. 19 and spaces are limited, so please check out the details and make your plans!

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  1. Great post Cathy. For many clients it’s a big step from the default, obvious, multiple choice questions to the scenario based questions. With the right effort you can really make that a win situation for them.

    Your tips are simple, practical and when you read them, somewhat obvious but the ‘Truth’ has a way of doing that 🙂

  2. Thanks Cathy, I really like the approach you took to creating the scenarios. particularly i have learnt the importance of involving SMEs which I don’t do that often.

  3. Lorie Fleming says:

    I think the more detailed version of the scenario question will more effective at helping the learner improve his/her performance. It was more engaging, as well. The little details and more complete picture of the situation with “Jake” really made me want to try to do my best to help him. That said, I am really curious, what is the correct answer? You are right that it’s important that the right answer is not completely obvious so that the learner will really have to think about it. In this case, without knowing all of the content of the “Friendly Face” model that this question is testing, my best guess is Answer C. Answer A would put Jake on the defensive, and Answer B is slightly too impersonal. Answer C is very empathetic, warm, and caring about the employee. Am I correct? 🙂

    • Lorie, thanks for your question. Since I’m not familiar with the (non-existent!) “Friendly Face” model, I don’t know what the right answer is. Our SME would have to help us with that. In fact, when we’re writing questions like this, if we don’t have the SME at our elbow, we’ll often just guess at what the options should be and what the right one might be, and then ask the SME to correct it. While it’s a little hard on us as designers to be constantly guessing, it can be the most efficient way to work with a busy SME — we make our best guess, and then they just need to respond to it.

  4. Cathy. Great information and a really useful examples. Subject matter experts are so vital to creating relevant, immediately useful learning materials. They are also a wonderful way to stay ‘in touch’ with what is really happening in the workplace. Scenarios are powerful when they have enough noise to make them feel real and not so real that the employees try to work out who you’re talking about. 🙂 Being a staff member and creating scenarios can mean you need to be really careful not to create something that seems to mirror a current problem too closely. Have you found this?

    • Thanks, Yvette. Yes, it’s very common to veer a little too closely to a recent problem, which is why we need to make sure that the SMEs (preferably more than one) and any other stakeholders review the ideas and final script carefully. For example, if we have a SME who’s relatively new to the organization, we might want to make sure that a more experienced person also looks at the material to make sure that we haven’t inadvertently told a nonfictional story.

      The flip side of this is that asking SMEs for real-life stories can be the most efficient way to get scenario ideas and write realistically difficult options. Our challenge then is to fictionalize the story enough that it won’t be problematic (or, better, work with an organization that isn’t afraid to use true stories!).

  5. I think the burning question I’d have is why, if someone has arrived late most Mondays for the past two months, has no one said anything before.

  6. I find myself chuckling because, even though I knew the “Friendly Face” model was fictional and irrelevant to the main point of your blog post, I couldn’t help but wonder what the correct answer was in the hypothetical scenario. And I see from the comments above that I wasn’t the only one! This demonstrates that a well written scenario can be motivational and interesting.

  7. Winter Viverette says:

    Cathy thank you for the added input on this topic. I’m about to graduate from the T&D program at Roosevelt University and I have found I love to have scenarios in my projects and I always try to think them carefully so they capture knowledge and I try to keep them realistic and things so the learner can get more out of the scenario and the training.

  8. Hi, Cathy. I like using scenarios and your article is very helpful. I am a student at Roosevelt University and in their Training and Development program. Your blog is going to be of great help to me, since you have so much to offer!
    Thanks for sharing.

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