How to get things done - 3 essential questions you must ask

Peter Drucker


Whatever big challenges the New Year sees you facing, columnist William Cohen proposes 3 essential questions to help you formulate your plan to overcome them.

Management consultant Peter F. Drucker conducted his consulting mainly by asking questions. Many of his clients found this a bit disconcerting at first, though most found it extremely useful once they got used to it. As one client reported in print, "The questions got us to think."

Eventually Drucker’s basic questions were published separately by the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute and edited by her as "The 5 Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask about Your Organization".


Ready, get set....start the new year right with 3 essential questions!

These questions were:

1. What is our mission?

2. Who is our customer?

3. What does the customer value?

4. What are our results?

5. What is our plan?

These questions are still valid. However, they are strategic and may not help us with our immediate problems which may be personal and may involve a tactical issue requiring immediate action.

For example, I knew of a division manager who on the eve of Christmas Holidays found that she had no alternative but to develop a major and critical proposal for submission to a client the first week of the New Year. Normally her staff of about thirty all left for Christmas holidays on the 19th of December and were gone until January 2nd. But to get this proposal out she needed everyone, and this was the 18th of December.

Obviously Drucker’s five questions wouldn’t have helped her much in deciding how to handle this situation. This manager was faced with the issue of turning down her most important client or ordering her staff to give up plans for the holidays only one day before the holidays were to begin. She explained the facts, and by working shifts managed to get the proposal out and get it accepted. As we face a new year of challenges of many different kinds, managers at all levels need help in what to do in confronting immediate challenges.

So in place of Drucker’s traditional five questions let me suggest the following questions which I have derived from Drucker’s concepts for what you may be facing in the New Year from personnel issues, marketing issues, or very personal issues including, divorce, marriage, separation, or anything else including some combination thereof.

Question #1: What Your Most Important Challenge?

There is no way that you can do everything at once. So you need to concentrate and focus first on the most important challenge right now. If your office is on fire, I don’t think that’s there is any question but that your most important and immediate job is to get yourself out in one piece, or if you are a leader responsible for others to get them out before you do anything else.

As I wrote these words I received an e-mail from Bill Pollard, former CEO and Chairman of ServiceMaster for 12 years, then a Fortune 500 Company and recognized by Fortune Magazine as the number one service company in America. Pollard was also a good friend of Peter Drucker. Today he has his own company and is one of the California Institute of Advanced Management’s Trustees and advisors. He wrote me on the same subject and I quote his words with his permission.

"Peter Drucker taught me an important lesson about focusing on ‘The Priority’ and getting it done. It was during a time in my ServiceMaster career when we had just started a new business in a new market and I was seeking some advice from Peter. After he had identified several issues that I should be considering, I tried to summarize his advice by saying that what I heard him say was ‘that I needed to sort out my priorities.’ He then slapped his hand on the table and said ‘No, Bill, determine THE Priority and do it.’ He then proceeded to give me a history lesson on the word priority. It came into the English language in the 14th Century and remained singular until the 20th Century when it was pluralized."

So, whether you call it your most important challenge or THE Priority, this is where your focus must be.

Question #2: What Are You Going to Do about it?

Peter Drucker was a man of action. When he gave lectures and received accolades from his audience, he would say: "Don’t tell me how much you enjoyed my lecture or how much you learned. Tell me what you are going to do differently on Monday. Now there are always many things that you can do to solve a particular problem or take advantage of a particular opportunity or avoid a particular threat. For years I’ve been recommending a particular methodology which followed Drucker’s general concept of how one should proceed.

This methodology was used in staff studies and was extremely effective not only in organizing complex problems and reaching logical solutions, but in presenting this information to others to convince them of the validity of the problem solver’s solution. I always understood that this was developed by the military in the 19th century. However, during my further investigation, I discovered that this method was also used and taught at Harvard University. Later yet, I learned that other professions such as law, medicine, and psychology used a very similar approach to analyzing and reaching logical conclusions when confronted with difficult and complex issues.

This approach involves defining the issue, deciding on the relevant information bearing on it, developing potential alternative solutions which would solve it, analyzing these alternatives, developing solutions from this analysis, and finally making the decision as to what you are going to do.

Defining the Problem

You can’t get "there" until you know where "there" is. That’s not one of Peter Drucker’s injunctions; it’s one of mine. That’s my way of emphasizing that in order to decide what you’re going to do, you’ve got first to understand exactly what the issue is. In medicine, if a doctor misdiagnoses it could kill the patient.

Relevant Factors

There are always a number of factors directly relevant to each situation. So you may need to gather additional data. Or maybe you already understand the situation so well that you don’t need more data. You just need to organize the data you have. However in either case, notice that I wrote relevant factors, not relevant facts. Factors may include facts, estimates, assumptions, general prevailing conditions, or even mathematical calculations.

Alternative Courses of Action

All alternatives have both advantages and disadvantages. This includes doing nothing differently or nothing at all. Doing nothing differently should also always be considered. Sometimes doing nothing, or continuing to do what is not particularly attractive, is the best you can do and all other alternatives would lead to a less favorable outcome.

Analysis, Conclusions, and Decision

During analysis, you must essentially compare the relative importance of each alternative’s advantages and disadvantages against that of other alternatives. Some alternatives have few disadvantages, but no great advantage either. In any case, your task is to think it through and document your thinking. This helps this left-brain method to be really effective in understanding and arriving at your conclusions as well as explaining the decision to others after the decision is taken.

If you’ve done this right, the conclusions from the analysis will lead you to a logical decision. And you should have no difficulty in explaining it if you must justify or persuade others to take the decision you have outlined. You would have left nothing out, concluding that despite the risks, which are always present, the best way to achieve the desired results is to adopt the course of action or strategy you have recommended.

In helping you to understand your conclusions, its well to recall General Eisenhower’s comment about decisions imparted at the conclusion of World War II. He said that all decisions could be categorized as either urgent or critical. However he said the strange phenomenon was that urgent decisions were rarely critical, and that critical decisions were rarely urgent. I discovered this myself once when through an error my automobile insurance lapsed and my son had an accident with no injuries, but considerable damage to the vehicle. The lack of insurance was not urgent before the accident. The car performed just fine without it. It was however, critical for being reimbursed for damage.

Question #3: What’s Your Plan?

Eisenhower, who before he became U.S. president, planned the largest invasion in the history of the world before or since, said: "Plans are nothing, but planning is everything."

In other words, it’s not the plan itself that is so important but the exercise of thinking through in developing the plans that is so critical. The reason is that your plans, no matter how carefully thought through or documented are almost sure to fall apart once you start implementing them. That’s because environmental conditions on which your plans are based frequently change and your immediate actions must change to adapt to the new conditions.


Drucker’s observation was, "Plans are worthless until - and unless - they degenerate into work." So until and unless that happy day arrives, your plans and the planning that went into developing them are a waste of time, money, and resources. Don’t let this happen. Once you have a good plan, see that it is executed!