Whether you manage a two-person shop or a multi-cultural corporation, here’s a yearly three-step exercise that could literally change the way you do business:
- Invite your key managers to a two-hour meeting. If it’s a fairly cohesive, predictable group, ask them to bring along one or two other people they might identify as emerging leaders. You want different points of view represented, and input from a variety of sources, but the group shouldn’t be larger than 15 or so. Then let all participants know there is to be no preparation beyond a good night’s sleep.
- When gathered, tell the group that the task is to ask 100 questions about the operation of the company. You aren’t interested – and in fact do not want to hear – any answers, debate or roadblocks. The goal is to have a scribe write down 100 questions before the group disperses. Then, after the meeting, assign each question raised to categories such as (1) Infrastructure; (2) Personnel; (3) Finance; (4) Product lines; (5) Research and Development; (8) Mission and Core Values, etc. Typically, 6-8 categories arise organically, based on the questions raised. You’ll find a cluster of six or eight questions which easily can be combined into one or two questions – do that.
- Then send the revised list back to the participants and ask them to bold their top three questions in each category – those which they think are the most pressing or those which, if answered, could have the most impact on the company’s success. When you have the list with bolded questions returned, tally the results and then endeavor to whittle the results down to the three most meaningful questions in each category.
Your strategic plan for the next six months of operation is to find the best answers to those questions.
Our business did this exercise annually, with an outside moderator and scribe, and we were always amazed at the results we obtained. Initially, we anticipated obvious questions: What should the starting wage be for every position? What would happen if we lost three key customers? How many products should we add in 2015? What is the right price for our new product line? What do customers want from customer service?
It’s what came next – the second hour of questions. By then, staff understood they had permission to continue challenging pre-sets, to continue peeling away at the onion, and so they became bolder than they ordinarily would have been at a staff meeting. Why are we hanging onto two underperforming projects? Is Vendor A’s price still competitive? Do we have processes grandfathered in that no longer meet our needs? What are we really accomplishing at staff meetings? Is outsourcing mail operations viable?
Too often, everyone goes into a staff meeting waiting their turn to give a report – to supply answers. We’re expected to know it all, and then to convince our direct reports or supervisor that we know it all. When the CEO turns the tables and demands questions instead, it allows us all to set aside that performance yoke and to grow in new directions. Rather than merely rehashing or defending existing processes or plans, we get to question the very premise for their existence. And the answers we find will either validate or change our plans for going forward.
Give it a try. What have you got to lose? (That’s your first question!)