Asking the right questions, action learning with INTRAC

March 4, 2020

PAX wants to promote learning at the individual, collective and organisational levels. To this end, we have worked for the past few years with Intrac, a well known and respected consultancy for ngo’s. Their mandate is “to strengthen the effectiveness of civil society to challenge poverty and inequality, empowering people to gain greater control over their own future.” Bruce Britton and I, Jitske Hoogenboom, started a journey together to design and deliver an action learning programme for PAX staff. We’ve closed this learning loop by reflecting on the process. It all resulted in a Praxis Paper.

The way PAX, or any other organisation for that matter, communicates to ‘the outside world’ is by showing what work we do and what the results are. In PAX’s case, we also show the work our partners do in conflict areas, since this is an integral part of how we work towards peace. But let us take you behind the scenes, behind the curtains, to talk about something really specific: how we, as an organisation, learn.

An organization’s strengths lie in the things it does well, but also in learning from its mistakes, and in asking the right questions. Eric E. Vogt, a scholar and researcher, says that good questions are key to creativity and innovation. In the Praxis Paper we reflect on how learning questions can enhance learning. Being one of the participants of the PAX action learning program myself, working with learning questions changed how I feel, how I think and how I act.

The formulation of a learning question requires attention: not all questions are helpful for learning. First of all you need to choose an issue that is real and that you care about and want to explore. It should be an issue that is complex and has no expert solution that you can find in a book or by talking to a colleague. And it should be an issue that you have a certain level of responsibility for. A learning question is most helpful when it makes your eyes sparkle and generates a sense of curiosity and excitement. If the question makes you feel anxious, overburdened or bored, it most likely won’t do the trick. There are three dimensions to formulating powerful questions: construction, scope and assumptions.


An open question, motivated by genuine curiosity, has the most power to stimulate creative thinking. These questions often start with why, what would it take, and how. ‘What can we do to convince people of the need to ban nuclear weapons’ will generate less creative thinking than ‘How can we contribute to a world without nuclear weapons.’


The scope of the question should neither be too narrow, nor too wide. If it is too narrow it can be helpful for learning but won’t stimulate creativity. If the scope is too wide, it will be less likely that creative thinking will generate action. ‘How can we contribute to peace in South Sudan’ has a less action-oriented effect than ‘What would it take for us to engage more people in peacebuilding in South Sudan.’


When formulating a question it is helpful to explore assumptions behind a question and to consider whether a different belief system would influence the formulation of the question. ‘How can we convince the Dutch government to ban the import of conflict minerals from Congo’ probably involves different assumptions than ‘How can we engage with armed groups in region X in Congo to create different standards for the extraction of gold.’ Sometimes formulating a question from a different set of beliefs than your own can provide a totally new perspective for action.

Then you start working with the question. It won’t bring you one clear answer. But if you devote attention and time to the question, you will generate many new insights. To make the most of your question your working method should include thinking, writing, talking and acting.


Having the question simmer at the back of your mind while you are doing things, such as reading or talking. Just doing that will make you look through a different lense and will generate ideas. But these ideas may easily slip your mind. This is where writing comes into the picture.


Documenting your own thoughts either by writing, or in another way that suits you better, helps not only to remember your ideas, but also to think them through more thoroughly. Writing also makes you aware of how your thinking changed over time. Another way to allow your ideas to develop is to make sure you talk about it.


Having open conversations about your ideas and asking questions and having people question you will inspire you to look differently at yourself and consider your question. Thinking, writing and talking lead to ideas about actions you could take. Take them.


Come up with experiments to test your ideas. Agree with yourself to do something differently than usually. Try a new tool. And don’t forget to reflect on what happens: did it do what you expected? No? Why do you think this is? And what does that mean for your work?

Did it help? Yes

If you work with a learning question and think, write, talk and act, this will do something for you. I can’t predict what your learning will bring you. I now have a more explorative mindset when doing my work. It is easier to take a step back and think about what I’m doing and what alternatives there might be or to look at things from a different perspectives. Working with a learning question has also changed how I act. I have gained knowledge as a result of working with my learning question, and tried tools that I still use and will use more often in the future.

More of my colleagues have this positive experience and PAX now has many ideas to test in future learning processes that would not have emerged without us writing the Praxis Paper. Hence, the writing of this paper has reinforced some of what we learned from implementing the programme. Participants that benefitted most from the action learning programme used it to work on challenges really close to their day-to-day work. This is mirrored in our experience: we would now do many things differently, but we needed to implement the programme to be able to come up with these changes. Learning is in doing. We, Bruce Britton and I, hope the paper will encourage others to try action learning as we believe even more strongly that it is a very valuable method for personal growth and learning in complex situations.



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