A Simple Way to Get to the Heart of any Issue – Act Like a 3 year old.

September 4, 2011

Strategy Concepts


Getting to the Heart of the Issue – the Power of Asking QuestionsAsk Questions to Build Strategy

In a prior post [here], a simple way of breaking through ‘complexity paralysis’ related to strategic planning was proposed.  Essentially, a great first step to breaking through the paralysis or failure to take action on a strategic plan was to start outlining the questions that we think we need to answer for our business.  Or, more specifically, to consider, as a starting point, the core issues that we as business leaders have already identified.  Once identified, and then clarified, we can follow-up with studying those issues and identifying the most important for our business.  If you need some help even creating this list of questions/issues for the starting point, think about the question “What keeps you up at night?” and start listing all your answers.  Of course, focusing on the business answers!

Why? Why? Why?

So, you have a list of key questions you already know should be answered for your business.  Great!  Here’s where acting like my 3 year-old comes in handy as a great skill for strategic planning.

What I have seen work very well is diving into each of the key questions using a 3-Whys approach.

You have probably seen this in action with children.  And it’s really a fantastic ‘process’ for understanding.  I just went to an aquarium with my family and my youngest started with:

  • Q: Papi, why do fish live in the water?  A: They are animals that can’t breath air . . .
  • Q: Why can’t they breath air?  A:  They don’t have lungs like us that . . . they have gills . . .
  • Q: Why do we have lungs? A:  They are of our body that help us . . .

And so on.

I think you see where this went.  A long discussion that moved across topics, but was based on one simple question that was very much related to what we were doing at the moment in the aquarium.  And the line of questioning went to understanding.  He wanted to understand; to have a better picture on many of the things that were related to and seemed important to understand about why fish live in the water.  He could have taken my very first answer and stopped.  Assuming that was all there was to know.  But he didn’t.

Are we so insightful we can stop at the first level?

Maybe as we age (hmm.  Something to research) we assume we know more about the underlying issues and therefore take more of the short-path to problem solving and don’t dig in like my son did.  Asking the question “why?” three times helps to get to the real essence of an issue or question or customer need.  This is a way to distill issues and not get trapped into ‘taking the bait’ on that first thought being the most important part of the overall issue or question to answer.

How might this look in practice?  Consider this recent discussion with a small retail business owner.

  • Foundation Question:  Should I rebrand my store?
  • Q: Why do you think this?  A:  Because I think the market has moved on and no longer values my key product line/identity
  • Q: Why do you believe this?  A:  Because there are not many people coming to the store asking me about those products
  • Q: Why do people come to your store?  A: I don’t know. . .

This final answer is really the root question – “Why do people come to my store?”.  Sure, maybe a store rebranding could be the ultimate outcome, but there certainly wasn’t enough info to make that decision.  Just simply digging in gave an entirely new perspective on the real issue at hand – the business owner didn’t know why customers valued the shop.

What can you do now?

So, if you are stuck moving forward on building your business strategy, take the first step and write out those key questions you are carrying around about the business.  “What keeps you up at night?”.  Then, you can try the 3 Why’s for each question.  Just write “Why?  Why?  Why?” on a piece of paper after each key question and see if you can discover those deeper issues.  You can try this yourself, but I can recommend finding a colleague, mentor, friend, husband/wife, or even your 3 year-old, to help.  Get another ‘set of eyes’ on the key questions and you might be surprised with what you find.

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By the way, after some more analysis over the course of the following days, it was found that the key product line for that retail business (which was also in the name of the business) accounted for over 60% of sales and 50% of profit for the store!  This product line was paying the bills.  People weren’t asking about the product line because they knew of it and just came in to buy.  They didn’t need to ask questions.

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