The Lesson We Can All Learn From the Way Drucker Questioned Clients

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Peter F. Drucker developed five famous questions that were crucial to the his approach to business. He published them in the book The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization.

Those questions were:

1. What is your mission?

2. Who is your customer?

3. What does your customer value?

4. What results do you seek?

5. What is your plan?

But important as they are, these aren’t the only questions that Drucker asked, and they may not be the most important questions he used as he analyzed an organization’s situation and needs.

We Need to Use Our Brain the Way Drucker Used His

Drucker was a genius. Maybe that’s why he didn’t use his brain the way most us do, and also why his independent consulting was so different from the way most individuals or organizations conduct consulting.

On reflection, his questions seemed to lead to almost magical results. What did Drucker know that we didn't? 

Drucker’s Secret Source of Questions

When I was Drucker's student, I remember a peer asking him how he was able to so accurately predict future events.

Drucker's said, "I listen..." and then paused. We all wondered what he listened to, so we strained our ears to hear what came next. Then he spoke the rest of his sentence: "To myself." That caused the laughter he undoubtedly intended.

Unfortunately, since Drucker can no longer tell us directly, we must look at his methods of thinking in order to fully understand what he meant by listening to himself.

How to "Listen to Drucker"

Drucker lectured authoritatively. As students, we thought  this must be "the European method" of instruction. He did not ask many questions to encourage intellectual interaction or get students to reason to a predetermined logical conclusion. Those who had seen him in action as a consultant were probably surprised.

When he did ask a question, we soon discovered that the question might have a number of acceptable answers. But getting the correct answer was never possible, even if you were the first or second to raise your hand to volunteer a response.

Drucker almost always found the answers want for various situational reasons.

After he had rejected four or five student’s answers, he would nod his head in agreement and deem the answer given was minimally acceptable. We soon learned these questions constituted a teaching technique and were not meant to elicit a "school solution" answer, nor demean a student, but rather to demonstrate just how elusive definitive answers were, even if the author of these principles was Drucker himself.

The Questions Drucker Asked While Consulting

This was not the case when Drucker was in  consulting mode. When Drucker consulted for companies, he didn’t ask questions to demonstrate the problems with the solutions. Instead, he asked questions to enable the client, or group of clients, to reach an optimum answer for their business.

These questions came, as he himself stated, not out of his knowledge or experience, but out of his ignorance of the industry, the company, or other facts or factors that consultants sometimes collect. (No wonder consultants sometimes get a reputation as being experts who borrow a client’s watch to determine the time, and then charge the client for the privilege!)

Drucker Didn’t Always Ask His Famous "Five Questions"

Usually Drucker didn’t ask his famous five questions. Clients may have prepared to answer these.

Instead, Drucker asked questions coming directly from his sincere lack of knowledge about the problem. As one client reported:

We weren’t used to this. We were accustomed to asking a consultant questions and then having him find the answer for us. Drucker asked us questions, but not ‘the five questions.’

In answering these questions pertinent to the situation, we gained tremendous insights about our business, and then decided on what directions to take almost by ourselves through additional questioning of his or our own.

His methodology was quite different and took a little getting used to, but once mastered, it was amazingly effective.

The Welch Example

Drucker observed that GE owned many disparate businesses, so when he met with CEO Jack Welch, he asked (not completely innocently): "If you could do something about it, which businesses would you get rid of? And since you can do something about it, what are you going to do?"

These two questions, not the famous five, caused Welch to mandate his famous (or infamous depending on your views) orders that if a GE business was not or could not become number one or two in its market, it should be sold or liquidated.

This plan and similar decisions emanating from these two basic questions increased GE’s market value more than 29 times during Welch’s tenure. When he retired, the company was valued at $415 billion. Whatever Welch paid for Drucker’s two questions, they were clearly worth every penny.

What Can You Do With This Insight?

There are definite advantages to asking questions. The irony (and this gets back to Drucker’s comment earlier about listening to himself) is that we can follow Drucker and "listen to ourselves" with great value.

Motivational speaker Tony Robbins has consulted with numerous CEOs, several presidents, and royalty. He has also spoken to both the U.S. Congress and the British Parliament. Like Drucker, Robbins promotes the value of "listening to ourselves."

According to Robbins, "The questions that we ask ourselves can shape our perception of who we are, what we're capable of, and what we're willing to do to achieve our dreams."

Many others have used the technique of asking themselves questions and gotten the answers. Thomas Edison held 1,093 U.S. patents, as well as patents in the U.K., Germany, and other countries.

Just considering a few of his inventions might eclipse even Steve Jobs. It was Edison who invented the electric light bulb, the phonograph, motion pictures, and more.

His most famous technique was to go into a darkened room and ask himself questions. Clearly he got some good answers.

Elias Howe asked himself how to invent a mechanical sewing machine. His model wouldn’t work if the thread hole stayed in the same place on the needle as it did in manual sewing.

He listened to himself and got the answer. It came in the form of a dream, but it came: Put the hole in the pointed end! Who would have thought of that?

During World War II, General Douglas MacArthur struggled mightily with how to recapture all the islands lost to the Japanese in the early months of the war. These were now fortified and fully prepared for an American attack. There would be no surprise and the Japanese would fight valiantly, maybe to the last man.

American casualties would be significant. MacArthur’s staff could come to no solution, so MacArthur asked himself and listened. He decided he didn’t need to recapture all of the islands that the Japanese had taken, only certain ones. His strategy was called "island hopping" and it worked.

In summary, you can find good answers, not only by listening to Drucker, but by asking questions and listening to yourself. Do it!