Follow Drucker’s Lead: Ask the Right Questions

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I’ve told the story before about how I was surprised one evening in class when Drucker was asked a question I thought he might have difficulty answering.

Another student asked how he was able to consult successfully with varied top executives of countries,  as well as CEOs and presidents of non-profits and small businesses, and major corporations and religious organizations. Where did he get the great knowledge and experience to be able to do this?

I knew that Drucker liked to answer difficult questions, but how would he answer this? What was the answer? Of course, he had a methodology, and in one of his books even gave us an outline that he used.

But his answer still resonates today. “It is not my knowledge and experience,” he answered, but my ignorance and lack of experience.”

That got our immediate attention. He went on to explain his method, and like most things Drucker, it was simple and direct. “I ask questions,” he stated simply.

But there is an important caveat about asking questions. Drucker wrote that asking the wrong question, even if you get the right answer to that question, can be worse than not asking any question at all.

The way he put it was, “it is more important to ask the right question than to get the right answer.”


A Case in Point | The Coca Cola Mistake

In the mid-1980’s, Coca Cola made a big mistake when it attempted to introduce “New Coke” in response to “The Pepsi Challenge,” which had been slowly eroding Coke’s market.

The Coke people asked the question: Why are customers preferring the Pepsi taste? They did all kinds of taste tests and determined that Pepsi was sweeter than Coke. With that simple answer, Coke spent millions formulating a sweeter product that was not “too sweet.”

And in blind taste tests that it conducted, its new Coke product was consistently preferred over either its former product or that of its rival, Pepsi Cola. They got the right answer. Unfortunately, Coke asked the wrong question.

The question should have been: why are increasing numbers of consumers preferring Pepsi? And associated with that: what do consumers value most?

The older generation valued Coke’s image representing America as much as Mom, apple pie, and John Wayne. With this majority market, Coca Cola’s previous campaign of the “The Real Thing” resonated.

However, consumers rebelled in mass against “New Coke,” which appeared to no longer to be “the Real Thing,” and sales dropped; whether they preferred the taste over Pepsi was secondary.

After millions of dollars in advertising and promotion, and much bad publicity, “New Coke” was quietly withdrawn from the market.

Had Coke asked the right questions, it would have done then what you see today: different versions – such as Diet Coke, Zero, Freestyle, and Light – for different market segments.


Ask Your Brain

I read an article once in which the author recommended that talking to yourself was quite useful in problem solving and management decision making. The author maintained that if you asked yourself questions and addressed them to your own brain as if it were a separate entity, you would be rewarded with useful and effective answers. In fact, your brain would answer, or at least attempt to answer, any question you decided to ask. 

I tried this technique, and was surprised at just how easily it worked and how frequently it provided me with immediate, and highly effective, answers.

Psychologists tell us that one reason for this phenomenon is that frequently your brain already has all the facts necessary for problem resolution stored away in your memory. Some of these facts cannot be easily accessed. By eliminating the various psychological blocks when you struggle with finding a solution directly, questioning the brain as a separate entity eliminates much of the garbage that is blocking you from an answer.

However, sometimes the pressures and stresses you are under are too great. The problem is either too big or the situation is too demanding. Your brain cannot function so easily, and will not consciously come up with a workable solution, even if you question it separately.

But the brain can work subconsciously, even while the conscious brain tends blot out the useful information emanating from your sub-consciousness.

So, how can you separate the two?


Addressing Your Brain Creates a Distraction

One answer is a distraction. This may be done in a variety of ways. It is said that Thomas Edison used the simple technique of sitting in a darkened room. Others take a nap or simply go to sleep at night and find they awaken in the morning with the solution. I’ve had this happen to me without any effort, and maybe you have, too.


Drucker’s Consulting Based on Knowledge and Experience – Just not His

Drucker’s consulting was based on asking those with the most knowledge and experience. Who knew more about the problem or was better equipped to come up with the best answer than the client?


Drucker’s 5 Basic Questions

Drucker’s had five basic questions that he routinely asked his clients, and that he suggested all managers ask themselves.

1. What is Your Mission?

Drucker’s favorite mission statement was from a very old business. But this mission statement, though not recent and very short, almost a one-liner, was his favorite for a very important reason. It changed Sears Roebuck from a struggling mail order house that continually flirted with bankruptcy to the world’s leading retailer, all within ten years. Simply stated, it was to be the informed and responsible buyer first for the American famer, and later for the American family. Like all missions, it changed over time.


2. Who are Your Customers?

My friend, entrepreneur Joe Cossman started selling garden sprinklers that consisted of a flexible plastic hose with holes throughout its length. He sold mainly through supermarkets and similar outlets. One day he read that his hose was being used in the poultry business as an inexpensive way to cool poultry pens during the hot summer months. This caused him to redefine his business and open an entirely new market for his product. It’s critical to continually track your sales to redefine your customers.


3. What do Your Customer’s Value?

That’s one question that Coca Cola management should have asked. If they had asked that question, they wouldn’t have wasted millions trying to change a taste that didn’t need to be changed for its primary market.


4. What Results are You Getting?

Drucker knew that without measuring your results, you were not going to make progress because you couldn’t  tell if progress was being made or not. By results, Drucker wanted to see the numbers. But “show me the money!” doesn’t just mean cash. It means quantified results.


5. What is Your Plan?

Drucker had questions he felt important to ask before sitting down to develop a plan. He wrote that a manager must start with three questions. The first was his familiar, “What business are you in?” The other two are: What will the business be in the future if I do nothing, and what should the business be in the future? 

Regardless of the time horizon selected, the answers to the three questions must fit together. You can’t suddenly jump from the business you are in today without intermediate steps into the future of what your business should be.


How to Develop Good Questions

Here are some guidelines for developing questions:

  • Will the question act as a catalyst for further discussion with your client?
  • Will the question arouse curiosity?
  • Will the question promote an exploration of new ideas?
  • Will the question challenge your client to a suggestion?
  • Is the question open to a variety of different views and responses?
  • Will the question require clients to answer how and why?
  • Will the question help to uncover controversies in the subject matter?
  • Is the question directly connected with the client’s operation?
  • Will the question encourage clients to examine their own thinking?
  • Drucker’s use of questions may be a very different approach from your usual way of managing. But this technique is sound, and yields amazing results in any organization.

This article was adapted from Consulting Drucker: Principles and Lessons from the World’s Leading Consultant, to be published by LID September 2018, and from Drucker’s Way to the Top: Lessons for Reaching Your Life’s Goals, to be published November 2018.