Asking Yourself the Hard Questions

Jan. 13, 2011
Truth can't be the first casualty when businesses are making major strategic decisions.

Change is well, you fill in the blank and you'll likely be correct. Try constant, inevitable, exhausting, invigorating, bewildering, inspiring. Was W. Edwards Deming thinking specifically of manufacturing when he wrote, "It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory"?

In his article this month, "Redefining Who You Are," Associate Editor Peter Alpern looks at companies that have made a major change in their products, target markets, operations or other aspects of their enterprise. It is a daunting task, says Mary Vermeer Adringa, the CEO of Vermeer Corp. and a vice-chair of the National Association of Manufacturers, because it requires "the ability to ask really, really hard questions and be able to answer them as honestly as possible."

In my career observing business, I have seen more damage done to companies by managers who could not ask hard questions of themselves than from almost any other source. Many managers are by choice or necessity salespeople and there is no greater danger than salespeople who treat themselves as an easy mark. There's a conversation on the golf course, an e-mail that strikes a chord, and soon they have used their considerable powers of persuasion to talk themselves into believing something that may be utterly untrue or inappropriate. As a result, the initiatives that they lead, the directions that they give to subordinates and the resources that they consume are tainted at the source and almost certainly doomed to be unproductive.

Of course, asking tough questions won't do you much good if you're only talking to yourself. Good leaders need to be able to create an atmosphere in which employees can honestly say what they think. This can be particularly tricky if an executive is known to fall in love with his own ideas. Why risk the boss's wrath, employees quickly figure out, if their views won't be heard anyway? In situations where employees can speak freely, this is not a license to be disrespectful, nor is it an invitation to chaos. Think of it more as preventive medicine. It will almost always be cheaper and easier to prevent a problem, or to minimize a problem, than it will to fix it after months or years of denying there is a problem.

In his book, "Use What You Have to Get What You Want," entrepreneur Jack Nadel notes, "It is in the nature of most hard-driving businesspeople to work hard. However, strategy will ultimately dictate success or failure. It's very difficult to retrieve a mistake once it is committed to action. Review the details over and over again. Then go for it."

To watch the results of not asking hard questions and answering them honestly, just look at the current circus in Washington. We all know that we have had decades of deficit government spending. We know that both parties are guilty of it. And yet both parties continue to prefer political posturing to constructive action, even as the problem grows more massive and the necessary solutions more draconian. While the current federal deficit is $1.4 trillion, the great achievement of the lame duck Congress was to increase the debt by nearly $860 billion. Paint it any way you like but that is not fiscal reform.

In Washington, of course, politicians have developed a clever method for avoiding the hard questions. They appoint a commission to study difficult issues and then release a report. Washington is awash in commission reports, which is a barometer of how divisive and difficult our politics are now. These reports lay out the hard facts and suggested remedies and then, time and again, their remedies are ignored because -- that's right -- the remedies require politicians to make tough choices.

Manufacturers don't have commissions on which to pass the decisions that may spur their growth or doom them to the scrap heap. Instead, they have to evaluate their businesses, competitors and markets, chart a course of action, and then work ceaselessly to make sure their team executes the plan. In the world of free enterprise, the prize often goes to the daring. And the daring should make sure the first challenge they meet is being honest with themselves.

Steve Minter
[email protected]

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