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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Out, Out Damned Garbage

by Ira Bryck

Having been raised on a steady diet of superheroes with powers both standard (leaping tall buildings) and exotic (attracting metal objects to one’s eyes- why is that desirable?) I have often wondered which one power I’d choose? Super strength or invulnerability? Heat vision or super speed? No single ability seems ample- so frustrating!

And if I had to choose, on behalf of my business, between the super power of Tradition (We Did It Before, And We’ll Do It Again!) and Innovation (Blazing New Trails Every Day!), I’d be equally annoyed- the mix of the two are required, it seems.

Tradition gives you a single-mindedness, which is great, as you don’t want to be distracted when you’re making the sale. When 2 brothers bought bananas for $1.79 per pound, and sold them for $1.79, and pondered the lack of profit, they decided to innovate: “Tomorrow, we use a bigger truck.”

Dumb, but we could all find stuff we do, just as dumb. Yet we think that we are already “out of the box” and challenging our assumptions. We are more likely loyal soldiers to our worn out conclusions, making, at best, errors in slightly different flavors and sizes than we did yesterday.

Over the last few years of moderating roundtables for members of the UMass Family Business Center, we’ve slowly improved at not giving advice in response to someone’s telling of a challenge they’re facing. Instead, we ask Strategic Questions, to help our hard-pressed colleague think more deeply about what new perspectives they might consider, and what else the evidence might suggest. It is our opinion that good questions are more useful than so-so answers. As you sow (garbage in) you shall reap (garbage out), so all I’m suggesting is to take a minute to improve the quality of your seed.

And if the usual way we might give advice (“Let me explain something that you don’t understand.”) makes us defensive and uncreative, the support of others helping us to think different makes us see potential where there were once limitations. Even if we decide, as result, to do exactly as originally planned, it might just be for better reasons, and have more traction. It may improve the way we explain ourselves to our banker, or even our sister.

I don’t know if strategic questioning is more art or science, but I do think the best way to learn or improve at asking them is to hear some good ones. What they have in common is their positive feeling (“How will you?” instead of “Why did you?”), their stress on learning (“How have you succeeded before?”), and their ability to reveal options and opportunities (“What would it look like to start over?”). In our roundtables, even if the person with the issue, considering many strategic questions offered by the group, decides to NOT do what they first considered, it doesn’t feel like they got talked out of something- it’s more that they reconsidered, that their first “obvious” answer may now look like a knee-jerk reaction, maybe more based on ineffective traditional thinking than innovative thinking. But blind innovation can also be a knee jerk, maybe not in keeping with your company’s traditionally inspired problem solving capabilities.

I’ve collected (and genericized) some of my favorite strategic questions formulated through the years by the FBC roundtable known as CEO Circle. They are no panacea, but I do think about them as somewhat like Zen Koans, to force myself to think more deliberately about, for instance, the UMass Family Business Center. I invite you to apply them to your own situation:

  • How might we learn from our mistakes?
  • What’s the risky, innovative next generation of our industry?
  • How will we measure progress and satisfaction?
  • What might be our competitor’s biggest fear about us?
  • How do we get paid for that?
  • How has change happened here before?
  • If our business doubled, how would we handle it?
  • What type of risk tolerance do we have?
  • What past event makes you think the way you do?
  • What would it look like to start over?
  • What would we do if our biggest problem got solved?
  • What would it take to do this perfectly & repeatedly?

I also think it’s useful to apply such questions to the family business aspects of your company. Especially if family members have their noses where they shouldn’t be: always on the grindstone, or up each other’s derrières, it helps to approach issues with some philosophical detachment. Some discipline is required to keep the discussion from disintegrating from “Some of us are more willing to sign personally than others- what should we do about that?” to “All wimps get the heck out of the company,” so as I’ve suggested repeatedly, a neutral facilitator could come in handy.

When groups negotiate, it’s always good to get people agreeing on as much as they can, making it more tolerable when they disagree on some issues. If a business family can agree, at least theoretically, on what your biggest problem is letting you avoid (ie: your second biggest problem, whatever that may be) you can progress to the possible solutions for that second problem, and agree on forming a task force to study that issue. If you can agree on what would be the theoretical game plan to handle a doubling of business, you might progress to agreeing on taking some baby steps towards implementing that game plan (and it helps to see it as a game plan, rather than a work plan).

The goal here is NOT to create a Ten Commandments for your family. Start with observations, progress to alternatives, consider options and Beta Testing, and before long, you might have strategies and results. Wouldn’t it be great if the answer to the question (above) “What might be our competitor’s biggest fear about us?” was “they strategize together like a gosh darned Legion of Super Heroes!” Now, THAT would be a power to be reckoned with.

(more about Strategic Questioning, and Fran Peavey, it's originator, at http://www.crabgrass.org)

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