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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Strategic Questions for the Long and Short Term

by Shel Horowitz

Many companies feel pretty good about their planning process if it stretches five years out. But oil giant Royal Dutch Shell has looked ahead 200 years! "They saw the end of oil, and began to plan for it. They also asked, 'What are the distinguishing characteristics of companies that have been around 200 years or more, and how can we strengthen them in our company?'" The comment is from Paul Lipke, of Sustainable Step New England, who returned once again to get FBC members thinking about strategic questioning. Shell's superb strategic questioning process, he noted, anticipated the end of apartheid in South Africa, the fall of the Berlin Wall and other global shifts and saved Shell millions of dollars.

Other companies also take the long view, including Toyota, the largest family business in the world, and Honda, which is looking 500 years down the road. "It's about perspective. They're looking at global trends, but also implementing small ideas to fully utilize employee creativity." But your goals may be more immediate. Walgreens asked what its customers really care about, and inquired into its own key profit ratio. With "convenience" and "profit per visit" (rather than profit per item) as key answers, it worked to make everything about the customer experience more convenient. Says Lipke: "They can have nine stores in a one-mile radius, and they invested in high margin areas like one-hour photo finishing and drive-through pharmacies."

Lipke showed how strategic questioning moved both Shell's long-term planning and Walgreens's immediate responsiveness forward, then used a live case story from a Family Business Center member to demonstrate how to apply strategic questioning in local firms. Strategic questions open up new possibilities; they usually start with how, when, what, why: Examples might include:

  • How might we think about this differently?
  • Who might have a new perspective on this problem?

But Lipke cautioned against closed-ended questions that may look like strategic questions, but actually block new ideas; "What makes you think it will work?" is very different from "What are all the ways we could solve this problem?" "The first is an accusation, an offense/defense question. It's negative, it's closed, it's yes/no, focused on one idea, It doesn't open up your thinking ."

Other cautions: make sure your questions get asked by trusted people when listeners are ready to hear them. 5:30 on Friday afternoon, may not be the best time. Lipke suggests you'll get the best insights when you "have either a sharply defined problem or one you need to understand better. You might need to be sensitive to people issues. Furthermore, don't ask for ideas if you can't listen well and implement them, otherwise you will create more problems than you solve. You won't get a second or third chance."

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