Are You Asking and Answering the Right Questions?

Editor's note:

Peter F. Drucker had a special genius for asking the right questions.

Indeed, one of his most notable principles was: "You will attain the greatest results in business (or any other institution in society) if you drop the word ‘achievement’ from your vocabulary... and replace it with ‘contribution.’"

When people tell you what they've achieved, you should ask them: "What have you contributed?" Hopefully, it won't be a conversation stopper.

Instead, of talking today about "entitlement" we should be talking about responsibility and contribution. Said Drucker: "What we ought to be asking is not, ‘What should you be entitled to?' but 'What should you be responsible for?'"

A question such as this can give people a new direction and a new purpose.

Our point? We tend to answer questions, that is, react to them. This means we react, many times, to the wrong question. Changing the question can change everything.


Peter F. Drucker observed most organizational/people conflicts result from people asking and answering different questions.

In short: Assume all conflicting parties are providing correct answers. However, also assume all are answering different questions.

"Never ask, ‘Who is right?’ in a conflict. Never even ask, ‘What is right?’ The proper response is to discover, first, what the question is that everyone is answering."

The Healthcare Debate: A Painful Example

The Democrats have exerted enormous political energy attempting to pass healthcare reform. But the Republicans believe the biggest problem is not healthcare. It's the deficit.

Recently, the White House issued statements to the effect that it will get serious about reducing the budget deficit this year—after it puts into law massive new healthcare entitlements.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office and a fellow at the Manhattan Institute wrote in The Wall Street Journal:

"This is a recipe for disaster, as it will create a new appetite for increased spending and another powerful interest group to oppose deficit-reduction measures."

Watching the House and Senate debate healthcare reform clarifies Drucker's observation about the need for discovering the question(s) that must be answered.

Without doubt, one of the Republicans' key questions involves potentially crippling economic impacts of adding trillions of dollars to our deficit.

Initially, the healthcare reform bill was positioned as a cost/effective concept that would force the healthcare sector to think through objectives that improve quality of services... lower costs... increase accessibility... and spark innovation.

From these objectives, it was hoped that the right questions would be formulated. But something happened. The objectives and questions changed somewhere in the process.

Even though the Democrats say the Senate healthcare bill will lower costs, reduce the deficit, help small businesses, stimulate innovation and improve our economy, Republicans believe each of these outcomes is sheer nonsense given the actual realities of what the bill contains.

One of the Democrats' key questions, or so it appears, relates to how to create another entitlement program they feel long overdue.

Republicans, however, believe the current proposed healthcare entitlement program will be paid for through increased taxes on the middle-class as well as the rich—and cripple our economy and lower our standard of living. Said Drucker:

"To restore government to solvency... requires that it be forced to make again priority decisions. It will again have to be forced to say no.

"The first step might be to return to the way budgets were made before the advent of the Keynesian Deficit State: by beginning with the available revenues, that is, with how much money can be spent.

"This forces government to decide what can and should be financed within the limits set by the availability of money. What exceeds these limits has to be said no to."

The Democrats and Republicans are asking and answering very different questions. The Democrats want a new entitlement program. The Republicans want fiscal restraint.

Others believe the questions being asked and answered reveal more than our simplification of the issue.

Our point? The healthcare debate renders explicit the notion that organizational/people conflicts can be traced to non-agreement on what the questions should be.

Re-Discovering the Contributions of Mary Parker Follett

Drucker credits Mary Parker Follet with creating the concept of constructive conflict.

"What must these people who differ with me and oppose me see as the right question if their position is a rational one and a correct one?

"Then, the second step to make conflict—difference—'work for us' is to use the mutual understanding of each other's question to integrate both positions into a new and different answer that satisfies what each side considers right.

"The result of conflict management—indeed, the only way to resolve a conflict—is not a victory, not compromise. It is integration of interests."

It's obvious that the conflict between Democrats and Republicans over the healthcare reform issue is quite emotional. Each is asking and answering different questions.

It seems the major issue involves incongruities in perception. What A sees so vividly, B does not see at all. And, therefore, what A argues has no pertinence to B's concerns, and vice versa.

Both, said Drucker, are likely to see reality. But each is likely to see a different aspect thereof.

There is no possibility of communications unless we first know what the recipient of the communications can see and why. Perception is not logic. It is experience.

Winning Frames

In their excellent book Decision Traps: The Ten Barriers to Brilliant Decision Making and How to Overcome Them, J. Edward Russo and Paul J. H. Schoemaker detail the importance of selecting a winning frame.

They define framing as the process of structuring the question.

Translated, this means "defining what must be decided and determining in a preliminary way what criteria would cause you to prefer one option over another."

The analogy of a window frame, Russo and Schoemaker observe, nicely illustrates the importance of the right frame.

"Architects choose where to put windows to give the desired view. But no single window can reveal the entire panorama.

"When you choose which window to look through—or even if you decide to keep track of what's happening through three different windows—you can never be sure in advance that you'll get the most useful picture.

"The framing of a decision inevitably sets boundaries; it controls what is in and what is out... our frames tend to focus us on certain things while leaving others obscured..."

An Example and Its Lessons

John Sculley was vice president of marketing for Pepsi-Cola in the 1970s when Pepsi was running a distant second to Coca-Cola. (Sculley subsequently became chairman of Apple Computer.)

The following example illustrates the importance of correctly framing the problem or asking the right question. Indeed, the right question in this case transformed Pepsi-Cola.

The following is excerpted and paraphrased from Decision Traps:

Sculley recalls in his autobiography, Odyssey, that Pepsi-Cola executives believed for many years—rightly—that Coca-Cola's distinctive hour glass shaped bottle was Coke's most important competitive advantage.

The bottle design nearly became the product itself. Sculley recalls, "It made Coke easier to stack, more comfortable to grip, and more sturdy to withstand the vending machines drop... "

Sculley tells how Pepsi-Cola spent millions of dollars designing and redesigning their bottle to compete effectively with the Coke bottle. This effort continued for nearly 20 years.

But Pepsi just couldn't "innovatively imitate" the Coke bottle, which had become a part of American culture. Then, suddenly, Sculley realized the problem was "framed" incorrectly.

In essence, he asked, Who is the customer? How does the customer use what he or she buys? What does the customer value? What are the realities of the customer?

Sculley realized that his company didn't know very much about customers. He then launched a study to find answers to the above series of well-structured "Drucker-type" questions.

The results of the study, while obvious, startled Pepsi's executives. People tended to consume exactly the amount purchased. Put differently, if the advertisements and promotions persuaded buyers to purchase more in a given week, people consumed more in a given week.

"It dawned on me" said Scully, "that what we needed to do was design packages that made it easier to get more soft drinks into the home." In short, Sculley re- framed the problem.

His new question was "How can we design new, larger and more varied packages to accomplish this objective?"
The results were startling!

Coca-Cola's bottle became near-extinct. And Pepsi's market position expanded dramatically.

One More Time—The Right Question Can Change Your Decision

Drucker, in Adventures of a Bystander, tells us how the legendary chairman of General Motors, Alfred D. Sloan, had the uncanny ability to ask the right questions:

"Decisions on people usually provoked heated debate in the GM executive committee.

"Once, the whole GM committee seemed to be agreed on one candidate for president of an operating division, who had handled this crisis superbly, solved that problem beautifully and quenched yonder fire with great aplomb.

"Mr. Sloan, finally, broke in. ‘A very impressive record your Mr. Smith has,’ he said. ‘But do explain to me how he gets into all these crises he then so brilliantly surmounts?'

"Nothing more was ever heard of Mr. Smith."

In Conclusion

The most dangerous mistakes are never made as a result of the wrong answers. Why? The wrong answer to the right question is quickly discovered.

Said Drucker: "If your answer produces the wrong, unexpected result, you can correct the outcome, especially if you build in feedback from actual results... in other words, a wrong answer to the right problem can, as a rule, be repaired and salvaged."

The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions and getting the right answers. The right answer to the wrong question takes a lot longer to discover and usually leads to more costly errors.

Many fall victim to viewing the symptoms of a problem as the problem. But truly effective people determine the root cause, that is, the primary factor causing the symptoms.

Finding the root cause of a problem requires training in decision-making. Years ago, many companies required all people with decision-making responsibilities to take systematic, well-organized learning programs on how to make effective decisions.

Perhaps it's time to, once again, make decision-making courses mandatory.