Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

The Question Is The Answer

Wondering how to keep your business thriving and relevant? Simple… ask the right questions.

Samuel J. Palmisano, outgoing chief executive of IBM, explained his leadership strategy in a recent New York Times interview. He described a framework that he said boiled down to just four questions…
  • “Why would someone spend their money with you — what is so unique about you?”
  • “Why would somebody work for you?”
  • “Why would society allow you to operate in their defined geography — their country?”
  • “And why would somebody invest their money with you?”
In reading these questions, I was struck by how outwardly focused they are. There is nothing in them about efficiency – optimizing processes, cutting costs, reducing delivery times. Nothing about increasing quality – reducing rework or increasing product and service reliability. Nothing about organizational structure, technology, compensation plans, sales targets, project and portfolio management, strategic plans, market penetration or market share.

Palmisano recognized that all of those considerations are simply instrumental by-products of a company’s desire (and need) to serve its four constituencies: customers, employees, community, and owners.

While all companies try to serve their owners, and most try to serve their customers, relatively few work as hard to serve their communities and their employees. That’s an unfortunate reality for those employees and communities, but it exposes a blue ocean of opportunity for your company – you can distinguish yourself from your competitors by minding that often-neglected part of the store.

If you're not persuaded, remember that a constituency you're not adequately serving will eventually undermine your company's success, either through overt resistance or through capture by your competitors. Do you want your community and your employees playing those roles?

It seems to me that the key to Palmisano's framework is the questions. They're not the kind you answer once and then you're done. Answering them is a continuing effort, and there are a million distractions, as any chief executive will tell you. In Palmisano's words…

“The hardest thing is answering those four questions. You’ve got to answer all four, and work at answering all four to really execute with excellence.”

Of course, first you have to believe – in your heart – that these are the right questions for your business. Do you?