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Ideas to Read and Pass Along

Kevin & Jackie Freiberg

Facing Reality, Part 2

Do you have the courage to ask these tough questions?

Great companies are equipped to compete in a world turned upside down because their leaders have an accurate view of the company’s strengths and weaknesses. Rather than blaming their shortcomings on others or on external factors, gutsy leaders assume responsibility for focusing on the things they can control. They make it safe for people to tell them the truth and engage in dialogue that is open and authentic.

Here are eight more tough questions you can ask to get your thumb on the pulse of reality in your organization. A candid conversation about these questions will help you get the real scoop on your employees, customers, competitors, and yourself. (Read the first set of questions.)

1. Have we nervously written off the competitor with lower prices as “out of her mind” or has she actually figured out a better way to drive costs down?

Is the competition foolishly giving away the farm or are they simply better than we are at managing costs out of the business? Are we constantly looking for new ways to eliminate waste and redundancy? Do we have a “start-up” mentality with regard to shopping for the best prices from suppliers? How long can we remain competitive if the reality is that our competitors have better technology, processes, and people than we do?

2. Why is our competition beating us to market with one new product after another? Is it because “They spend too much money on R&D” or is it because tribalism, politics, bureaucracy, and fear immobilize us?

memedtronicMedtronic, the leader in medical technology, has an annual goal. The company seeks to achieve 70% of all sales from products developed within the last two years. It’s practically impossible to increase the speed of the product development cycle unless people have the freedom to experiment. Do our people believe they can test new ideas, try new things, and frequently challenge the status quo without fear of reprisal? Have we created an environment that serves as an incubator for new ideas?

3. Do our competitors do a better job of astonishing the customer because their products are superior to ours or because they’re better at building relationships than we are?

Great companies learn something new about their customers every time they interact with them. The better they get to know the preferences of their customers the better chance they have of building a relationship of trust. When trust goes up customers become less concerned about price. Do our people define the customer in terms of a learning relationship or a transaction? What have we done for our customers to show them they are important to us long after they’ve purchased our product or service?

4. Do we acknowledge the pace of change and the opportunity it brings or do we give lip service to it pretending that the old business models will work just a little bit longer?

The rules of the game have changed compliments of the Internet. In a connected world the cascade of human intelligence makes everyone smarter, faster, more agile, and more sophisticated. Customers, suppliers, and consumers expect things in real time, from anyone, anywhere in the world! Based on readily accessible knowledge they are more willing to challenge authority than ever. As the pace of innovation increases, the shelf-life of products and services decreases. Speed rules! What excuses are we making for not keeping up with the pace of change? Are we willing to play by our competitors’ rules as the price for continuing to make these excuses?

5. What have you learned in the last three weeks that would add new value to your company and its customers?

Alvin Toffler said, “The illiterate of the future will not be those who cannot read, it will be those who do not know how to learn.” Competitive advantage will go to those who learn how to learn faster. No one gets to lean on yesterday’s headlines for very long. Both employees and customers expect you to find new ways to address their existing wants and needs. They also expect you to anticipate the wants and needs they don’t even know they have yet. Pretend that someone in your company asked you this question: “Tell me in five minutes or less why we shouldn’t outsource your position?” Based on what you’ve learned in the last three weeks could you provide an adequate answer?

6. When was the last time you seriously studied the best in an area where you need to improve?

Greatness demands an appreciation of the greatness in others. Gutsy leaders have the humility to recognize their weaknesses and learn from those who do it better. They are not intimidated by solutions that come from others. They don’t care where great ideas come from as long as they contribute to growing the organization. Some of the best ideas come from the most unexpected places—usually outside your industry. Gutsy leaders strive to keep themselves and others stimulated. They fight against entrenched habits and challenge established ways of doing things. They know that complacency is like a cancer; it destroys the fabric of an organization. Where have we gotten arrogant or complacent? Who are the winners (inside or outside our industry) in the areas where we need to get better?

7. What was the last best practice we adopted?

It’s one thing to benchmark the best, it’s another thing to apply what you learn. Billions are spent each year on corporate training programs, motivational speakers, and benchmarking activities. To what end? Those who get a good return on investment recognize that leaders are learners who teach. They have a commitment to share the knowledge gained from these learning activities and they have the passion to practice new behaviors. They are also strong enough to shake things up and inspire the organization to embrace new strategies. In terms of sharing knowledge after a major learning event, what’s our level of commitment? How well do we implement what we learn?

8. When was the last time you asked someone who knows you for candid, detailed feedback? What did you do with the coaching you received?

Personal change almost always precedes organizational change. Companies grow when the people in them bring a deep-seated sense of curiosity to their work. Gutsy leaders are committed to eliminating the blind spots. The blind spots are the difference between what we think our employees or customers need and what they really need. They are the gap between how effective we think we are and how effective others think we are. It takes guts to ASK for feedback and then LISTEN. But, without the courage to do this it’s difficult to target those high-leverage areas where we need to grow.

Tough competitors ask tough questions to stay in the know. That’s what sets them apart from others. Is it easy to face the issues raised by these questions? Absolutely not. But, it sure beats suffering the consequences of major problems that could’ve been solved if you only knew they existed.