Most would agree that having the best answers leads to business success. But long before you gather the wisdom to begin implementing the right answers, you need to have the ability to formulate the right questions—the courageous questions that cut through the clutter and quickly get to the heart of the matter.
The quest for success doesn’t start with having all the right answers; it starts with a willingness to ask yourself the challenging questions. ASKING FOR SUCCESS is the place where each of us begins the self-investigation that moves us to that better business place we seek.
Dick Tracy, CEO
You already wear dozens of different hats each day. Make sure your wardrobe includes the sharp snap brim hat of the detective. The very best professional business consultants, certified public accountants, business attorneys and executive coaches often find themselves playing the role of detective when they engage with a new client; asking pinpoint questions that build into a crescendo of discovery. The process is not some well-guarded trade secret. It can be practiced by all types of curious owners.
Today, you have to be constantly thinking about your business and the objectives you consider to be “mission critical”; what works, what’s valued by the customer, what makes your team perform more efficiently, etc.? In forensics, a typical post mortem examination would ask “what caused this system failure?” The economy is just too fast and your own organization too costly to wait until the “patient” has passed away to ask “what happened?” Continuous process management or “on the fly” retooling is a requirement of the new millennium. Any brave and inquisitive owner can perform the same living autopsy or pre mortem diagnosis to keep the patient alive and well. If you’ve tweaked your process for pricing out a large commercial job, you are not going to wait until the end of the year to see if your closing rate went up or down. After a month or two you’ll have that “pricing patient” on the table undergoing a thorough exam.
The Question Tree
There is no right or wrong time to sit down and assess your business, although it’s hard to argue against good old-fashioned year-end reviews. It’s a great way to launch your annual strategic business planning. In fact, a great question template, along with some comprehensive financial performance reports, can be a strong first step to developing a real-world action plan. But don’t get caught in anyone else’s artificial timelines—run these questions whenever you get a managerial itch or feel you need a push.
Great questions are productive questions and they do not have to be complex. In our over complicated world, simpler is better. Great big questions often generate smaller, fine-tuned questions—not unlike the structure of a tree: roots to trunk, trunk to branch, branch to twig, twig to leaf. Don’t let the leaf wag the trunk.
The following core questions are simply worded and very direct. With just these 25 questions, you can cover almost every aspect of your business. They can form the trunk and roots of your question tree. As your own best expert, you can add the more technical and highly-specific question branches that will more fully form the tree upon which you can lean and climb.
- In what ways did your business excel in 2005?
- Which parts can be easily duplicated in 2006 and beyond?
- Did you find a way to let customers know of this strength? Is there a new way to tell them?
- Where did you stumble? Is there something that you do not do well enough that should be outsourced?
- Are the very best people on your team still safely onboard? Is the employee talent bound to you emotionally and financially?
- Do your people have a way to grow through more business or technical training? Who are you mentoring right now?
- Are you challenging yourself to grow and break out of your own comfort zone?
- What is the single biggest staffing change that you could make that would free up more of your talents—allowing you to do more of what you do best?
- Would a surprise audit by 60 Minutes confirm that your operation is safe, OSHA compliant, up-to-date with financial, HR and tax records, insured properly, ethically strong and legal in all respects?
- What will be the next big change in this industry you serve (nationally or locally) and are you positioning your company to take full advantage of it?
- Have you analyzed your pricing recently, making certain that it reflects all of your current costs and has the teeth necessary to be both profitable and competitive?
- What “differentiators” does your business have onboard to attract new customers and retain current ones? What attracts business your way? What keeps you from getting it all?
- Are you investing in marketing and promotion in a sufficient way? Are you finding all of the right ways to reach your potential market? Do you have a promotion calendar and an adequate budget?
- Does an analysis of the mix of products and services that you offer satisfy you? If you need more high margin sales, do you have a plan to achieve them?
- Are there new products or services that you believe will keep your company relevant and attractive in the future? Do you need to reach out to new manufacturers or new potential partners to keep your business fresh and moving forward?
- What customer types do you wish populated more of your bread-and-butter database? Can they be attracted to your company through new programs or promotions?
- Are you constantly looking for ways to make your business performance measurable? Do you place value on those numbers and regularly incorporate them into your decision making?
- Do you have reliable relationships with a creative collaborator and a technical guru?
- What internal systems need revision (communications, service offering, hours, employee policies, quotations, shop operations, safety and compliance, deliveries, invoicing, accounts receivable, payables, record storage, etc.) in order to bring greater efficiency and savings to your company?
- Are you managing your non cash assets (facilities, machinery, inventory, trucks, etc.) efficiently?
- Do you have the professional team (attorney, accountant, banker, consultant) you need to get where you want to go? If they’re only keeping you out of trouble, they are not doing their job.
- Is there an alliance or partnership that you should seek to make you stronger?
- Are you actively developing and promoting your company’s identification and brand?
- Are you routinely holding well-planned meetings to share the news about your company’s performance—and its objectives—with your team of employees so that they are well-informed, motivated and working together toward common goals?
- Have you prepared a formal 2005 Performance Recap and a forward-looking Strategic Business Plan—both vital management tools—which can demonstrate your growth, your vision and all the actions you took and will continue to take, as the owner to safeguard and promote your business?
Assuming these are some of the right questions, you still have to come up with all the right answers. Turning answers into action will trap anyone who is unfocused. But if you can carry your efforts through, you will find that implementation is the point where the question tree bears fruit.