What We Can Do with Drucker's Questioning of Consulting Clients

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Peter Drucker

Drucker developed the five famous questions which were crucial to the Drucker approach to business, published 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 ever used as he further probed in analyzing 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. Nevertheless maybe this was why his consulting was considered to be the best that money could buy --- anywhere --- and how he came up with so many breakthrough insights about management which benefitted a client and which he eventually shared with the rest of us in his books, articles, speeches, videos, CDs, or in the classroom as well. On reflection his basic five questions and others he asked seem almost magical in the results they caused. Did Drucker have a secret source of his questions based on his extensive knowledge, experience, and reading of management techniques?

Drucker’s Secret Source of Questions

Well do I remember his comment when a student in a Drucker class asked something about his singularly unique accomplishments. On this occasion the student asked specifically about his amazing ability to accurately predict future events. His explanation could serve as enlightenment regarding many of his accomplishments and the legacy he left for us to continue to develop his many concepts, especially his using questions as a management technique.

The question that was asked in class that day was worded something along the lines of: "How do you manage to so accurately predict the future in so many different areas?"

With Drucker-like rejoinder he didn’t hesitate. "I listen ...," Drucker began and paused. We all wondered what or to whom Drucker 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 derive his methods of thinking in order to fully understand what he meant by listening to himself.

How to "Listen to Drucker"

In writing, in a video, imparting information during "A Day with Drucker" (a seminar repeated annually at UCLA in the 1970’s) and in the classroom, Drucker lectured authoritatively. As students, we thought that this must be "the European method" of instruction. He did not ask many questions to encourage intellectual interaction or to 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, to which he invited his students to volunteer an answer, we soon discovered that the question might have a number of answers which could be interpreted as correct and might be more or less acceptable. But getting the correct answer was never possible, even if you were the first, second, third, or fourth to raise your hand to volunteer a response. Drucker, almost always found the answering want for various situational reasons.

It was only after about four or five student’s answers had been summarily rejected that he would nod his head in agreement and deemed that 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 to demean a student, but rather to demonstrate just how elusive definitive answers based on written or spoken principles really were, even if the author of these principles was Drucker himself.

Questions Asked during Drucker’s Consulting

However, this was not true when Drucker was in his consulting mode. When Drucker consulted for companies he didn’t ask questions to seek answers through which he could demonstrate the problems with them as a solution. Then he asked questions to enable the client, or group of clients to reach an optimum answer which was situational and which they themselves had developed to solve, or at least shed light on, a particular issue.

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 which they can eventually feed back to the client. 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 Necessarily 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 post-Drucker:

"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 decisions 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’s question to Jack Welch, then newly minted CEO of GE and long before he became known as the "best CEO of the 20thcentury." Drucker observed that GE owned many disparate businesses and 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 think it through and 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. According to Welch, this plan and similar decisions emanating from these two basic questions resulted in GE’s market value to increase more than 29 times such that when Welch retired, GE’s value was $415 billion. Whatever Welch paid for Drucker’s two questions, they were clearly worth every penny.

What to do with this Insight?

Certainly this says that there are definite advantages to asking clients in consulting or organizations, or subordinate managers, questions. However 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 of countries (including the U.S.) other heads of state, 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 US patents, as well as patents in the UK, 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 with the thread hole in the needle in the end opposite the point as for manual sewing. He listened to himself and got the answer. It can 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 Two, 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!