Modifying Drucker’s Five Most Important Questions

In his book The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization, Peter Drucker offers a tool for self-assessment and transformation in his “Five Most Important Questions You Can Ask”.  The questions are designed to drive action and create focus on doing the right things to drive exceptional performance within your organization, only when I read them they fall short of delivering on what matters most.  So in the interest of challenging one of the greatest management thinkers of our time (and someone who I have great respect for) I will offer my own version of the Five Most Important Questions You Can Ask.

As a starting point it’s a good idea to provide some context by providing the five questions that Drucker proposed and a little bit of background as to why and with what I disagree.  Druckers questions are as follows:

  1. What is our Mission?
  2. Who is our Customer?
  3. What does the Customer Value?
  4. What are our Results?
  5. What is our Plan?

When I read them the first time I thought they were great, an excellent capture of the things that really matter to driving meaningful performance, but when I went back to read them again in preparation for a presentation I was planning to use them for I realized that from a pure management perspective they might all be valid pursuits, but that in practice they were missing some very key elements and were ordered in a way that didn’t make sense to me.

Let me break down my concerns question by question and then I’ll offer my own list designed to address my concerns at the end.

1.  What’s our Mission?

On the surface it makes a lot of sense to first consider your mission when defining action, after all if your actions don’t support your mission then they are certainly the wrong actions right?  But by starting with your mission you’re starting with the assumption that your mission is well defined and aligned with value creation for the organization, an assumption that unfortunately isn’t valid at many (if not most) organizations.  Even if your mission is clear and aligned, it also assumes that your mission is time-proof.

Consider as an example Arm & Hammer from Church & Dwight.  Originally baking soda had but one use – baking.  Let’s assume that the mission of the company at the time is to deliver the highest quality baking ingredients to home and commercial users under the Arm & Hammer branding – this mission is certainly valid, aligned with value creation, and relatively specific, but it is blinding to the new markets that we know were eventually opened for this product.

While starting with your mission may help you to align your actions to where your company is today, I would contend that it may also limit you from achieving the potential of your business tomorrow.

2.  Who is your Customer?

I have less issue with this question because I truly believe that the customer has to be at the center of everything we do in business if we are to be successful.  The only caution I would point out in asking for identification of your customer is that again you may be missing some potential in your business.  If the question is asked with no limitations or preconceived notions of the answer then asking this question may actually be genuinely beneficial – you may discover customers and markets you hadn’t known existed before.  If you narrow the scope of the answer to this question to your existing known customer base, however, then this question isn’t worth asking – you aren’t going to learn anything new.

3.  What does your Customer value?

This was the first question that I had no issue with except with it’s placement.  Your customer is the most important component of your business – without them you don’t have a business, so in my mind understanding what they value should be the first question that you ask.  It may seem trivial, but starting by focusing your attention on what your customer values has the potential to drastically shift the way you work, the way you think, and the way you behave on a daily basis as an organization.

4.  What are your Results?

It’s been said many times that you get what you measure, but you have to be very careful that you align ‘what’ you measure with the value that it creates.  I have worked with too many companies both as an employee and as a consultant that prided themselves on the quality of their measurements and dashboards, but who couldn’t explain the connection between their high tech management information systems and dashboards and bottom line value that their company generated.  Focusing on the results is important, but only if you’ve first asked why you’re measuring what you’re measuring.

5.  What is our Plan?

Another popular saying is that failing to plan is planning to fail (and I actually agree completely with that), but countering that saying would be that the road to hell is paved with good intentions – in other words a great plan is wonderful, but it’s execution that really counts.  I believe that Drucker is inferring action in this question, but unfortunately in too many cases I don’t see the results of that inference in practice.  Many companies that I’ve worked with have lots of great plans – unfortunately that’s the stage that many get stuck at, when it’s time to put rubber to the road other activities take priority and the plan doesn’t get executed.  There are few things with less value than a great plan poorly executed.

One other item that is not included in Drucker’s list, but which I think is an omission worth mentioning is any questions about people.  As has been shown in many books and case studies and perhaps most elegantly described in Built to Last, who you have on the bus is as important as where the bus is heading.  Again, the concept of execution is inferred in the fifth question Drucker poses, but I believe it is important to specifically reflect on who you have on the bus and whether they are the people that can deliver the results you are expecting.

Since I don’t agree completely with the questions or priorities that Drucker put forward in his five questions, I have attempted to develop my own recommendation for the Five Most Important Questions to Ask.  I have structured my questions to be asked in a specific order which I believe not only will inpire action, but build on each other to ensure that the resulting action delivers on the promise to deliver exceptional performance in your organization.

My Five Most Important Questions to Ask:

  1. Who and where are my current customers, potential customers and non-customers and what do they value?
  2. What should I be measuring to ensure that I am maximizing my value to my customers and how can I measure my results effectively?
  3. What is the plan and expected timeline to maximize our results?
  4. Who is responsible for executing the plan and delivering results?
  5. Have I committed sufficient resources (financial, people, and otherwise) to the execution of the plan to ensure that the person responsible can be successful?

As you ask yourself these questions about your organization, think about the specific impacts they will have on the actions you will take as a result of the answers and the outcomes you would expect to see and compare that to the results of Drucker’s five questions.

Don’t get me wrong, I have great respect for Drucker and I believe the questions he put forward are compelling but I don’t believe they are as focused as they should be to maximize their value.  I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments (and criticisms) – feel free to post your comments below.  Do you have a different set of questions you’d propose?

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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