Three Little Questions For Big Results

January 23, 2012

By John Munce, Relationship Executive, The Tatham Group 

Tommy is a buddy who makes the same resolution each New Year for the last 15 years: eat less and exercise more.  He makes a big plan and sometimes plans to sign up for the YMCA. By the 9th of January he has fallen off his commitment by eating super nachos while enthroned on his couch for two days watching the NFL playoffs.  Then he says to himself, “I’ll get started the first day in February.” What do you think happens by February 9th?

This year Tommy said he was changing his resolution.  He was being more specific and less demanding.  He said his new resolution was to walk one mile every day.  He wanted to add that he’d skip the nachos, but he said he’d wait until he had walked a mile everyday for the month of January.  He said, “It takes me 20 minutes to walk a mile.  There’s no excuse I can’t do that sometime during the day.”  As of January 9th, he’s stuck to his resolution.

I’ve seen many execs behave like the old Tommy.  They want to launch a big program with fanfare and speeches.  They want everyone to “Think Lean! Drive out Waste! Achieve Goals!”  They exhort workers, associates, and team members to Change! And Think Different! Then they behave the same as always in meetings. They demand the same solutions from departments and managers. No one notices a difference outside the big rallies, videoconferences and quarterly leadership summits. Like my buddy Tommy, they talk about getting things right but keep the old personal behaviors.

What if a leader just made one change and stuck to it for 30 days, like Tommy and his walking a mile?  The old adage is “30 days to a new habit.” One visible action could demonstrate a new way of thinking. The leader just has to do one thing each day—best if in each meeting, each day—for a month, then another, then another.

One effective boss I had took this simple approach to changing his organization.  He would carry with him a 3×5 card that he put on the table in front of him in every meeting.  On it was written his focus.  You knew it would come up every time. After a while, you made sure you brought it up first.  At that point, for him, the mission was accomplished.  Then he’d move to a new card and a new focus.


As an offering to 2012 prosperity, here are three questions that an exec—or any associate—can use.

  • What did the customer say?

Ask this question before going any farther into a discussion than the opening statement of the issue.  One leader even began monthly financial performance reviews by asking first for the latest insight from customers.  Listen for what the customer actually said.  Quotes have power.  They also show that you actually asked a real person and listened, not just had someone fill in a multiple-choice survey.  What the customer says is different from asking what the customer wants.  Many times people will assert that they know what the customer really wants.  Don’t let them. Ask.

  • Why?

One executive I know said his career was really launched when he learned to ask “Why?” It forced associates to think through issues and not just jump to solutions—or excuses. Why does that happen? Why does it happen at this point? Why does it happen to these particular customers? One friend felt that some people bristled at being asked why, so he would ask “Is there a particular reason for this?” Comes to the same end.

  • What’s the evidence your solution works?

There can be only two answers to this question, both of which include the comment “and here’s the data.” First, the evidence the solution works is that they have found the root cause.  They have the ability to turn on and off the thing that goes wrong.  Second, they have prototyped the solution.  They have tested it and shown it works in a realistic situation. All other answers amount to “well, I think it’s a good idea.”


Ultimately, the three questions work together.  Depending on the situation and culture of your organization, you may need to start with one or another.  Initially, if you’re not the boss, people may make fun of you for being stuck on one question.  If you are the boss, repetition carries the message.

Tommy has only been at his mile-a-day resolution for a week, but already friends have noticed a change in him.  Will your colleagues notice a change in you?