Marketing Expert's Corner

This article written in 2006


Many editions of this newsletter focus on execution, doing things right.  But every once in a while, I have to cover the bigger picture--doing the right things.

There's an old saying in politics:

If you can get people focused on the wrong question, 
it doesn't matter what answers they come up with.

And that's what we're going to examine here:  how to avoid the wrong questions -- the ones that really won't get you anywhere, no matter what the answer might be.

Don't Ask/Don't Tell

The early Clinton administration had a problem.  There were gay people serving honorably in the military, but conservatives just couldn't deal with that.  There was risk of a witch-hunt that would either cause widespread lying or as much as a 10% reduction in military personnel.  Either outcome would hurt everyone's interests.  So a new policy was born about sexual orientation in the military:  don't ask, don't tell.  Unfortunately, Mr. Bill may have thought the same dodge would work when dealing with his extra-marital amusements.  But it sure did work with the military issue.

There is an important class of issues that the best answer is embodied in two ingenious verbal gambits:

  • Don't ask, don't tell

  • Don't go there.

These kind of issues really have no answer, or have an answer that is so impractical that you'd go out of business trying to really solve it.  They are questions that aren't worth answering, or that are best dealt with by simply assuming them away.

I'm not talking about hypothetical issues here:  they are all too real, and they come up as the thorniest questions when a company or a strategy is in trouble.  Let's look at some situations I've seen over the years (in the bullets below, the parenthetical text is the unspoken assumption, the quote is from an executive):

  • (We can't afford to make our product competitive.)  "So what will marketing do to get us back to a billion-dollar valuation?"

  • (We can't afford the time to do business process re-engineering or serious training.) "How can we make a deep process change before quarter-end?

  • (We aren't growing fast enough.) "How can we expand our Enterprise Sales force to create demand?"

  • (We forgot to design quality in.)  "How can we dramatically improve quality and still make our schedule?"

  • (Our sales strategy is stalled.)  "How do we start 5 vertical markets to increase revenue this year?"

  • (We stuffed the channel last quarter.) "How can we keep channel sales growing?"

  • (The world has changed in a big way, but we're playing by old rules.)  "How can we increase security without sacrificing any personal freedom?"

The answer to all these questions isn't just "no."  It's "don't ask that question, it's the wrong one."  In high tech, we let compilers tell us "syntax error."  In consumer goods, we allow calculators to tell us "don't ask me to divide by zero, there is no answer"  But we won't accept that kind of logical clarity from people (particularly subordinates).  The problem is, the executive asking these kinds of questions really wants an answer.  We'll deal with how to respond in a bit, but first let's make sure you aren't asking these kinds of questions in the first place.

....You just might be a redneck

Borrowing from an old Jeff Foxworthy comedy routine, here are a few of the signs that you just might be asking an impossible, don't ask/don't tell question:

  • If you're asking a question that really doesn't have an answer...

  • If you're asking a question whose only answer is, "Turn back the clock, and..."

  • If the problem is caused by a policy you have no intention of changing...

  • If the problem is one whose very existence would cause big embarrassment with investors...

  • If the plan to resolve the issue you're bringing up would involve a step that says 
    "and then, a miracle occurs"...

  • If you can imagine a Dilbert cartoon about your situation...

The root problem of DA/DT questions is that they involve an internal contradiction:  they are logically impossible to answer.  But as human beings, we can simultaneously hold both sides of the contradiction in our heads because both parts are emotionally attractive.  Our desire is seducing us,  stopping us from thinking clearly.

So if you're on the verge of asking a DA/DT question, the first thing to do is don't ask it.  Instead, ask yourself how the question can be changed to be answerable.  Constrain yourself to the world of the possible and measurable:  "Given the resources we have now, what can we do in the next 90 days to make progress?"  Even if you can only make incremental improvements, you're at least headed the right direction.

What's the right response to the wrong question?

It is usually not possible to say "I won't answer that question" or "You're being illogical."  Only Aristotle or Mr. Spock get to do that.

One of the common responses to DA/DT questions is to "get political."  You'll hear phrases that sound positive but are completely content-free (e.g., "we'll just have to work smarter, not harder").  Playing on the emotional weight of the situation, the decision driver will bet on the ignorance of those around him by making promises that he won't have to keep (thanks to subsequent maneuvering). This can be very powerful for certain individuals, and can (unfortunately) make a career.  But this kind of response is bad for your business because, at bottom, it's playing games and ignoring realities.  Eventually, the deception will cost you.

Another very common response to DA/DT questions is to "get bureaucratic."  Table the discussion, send it off to committee, establish a tiger team.  This can work, but usually ends up as a waste of time and resources.  Often, not much useful happens and the organization resigns itself to an impossible situation...or, worse, creates a bunch of new processes that slow everything down even further without actually resolving the issue.

A less common response to DA/DT situations is heroic effort.  This can work, but will likely be incredibly inefficient because the contradiction inherent in the situation makes you fight against yourself.  Eventually, the law of deferred gravity applies and the true costs come due.

But in my view, redefining the question is the best way out of these double-binds.  For example:

  • "Before we answer that, how did we originally get in this situation?"
    This approach is constructive, but can be quite volatile if the root cause is a bad decision "we" made.  However, if we're a victim of circumstances, this approach can lead down a rational path.

  • "Let's take the question a bit further:  what are we doing right now that's contributing to the problem, and how can we stop doing that?"
    This tactic lets you look objectively at policies, practices, and processes that are at the root of the problem.  Maybe by changing behaviors a bit, the problem can shrink and become more solvable.

  • "Let's explore this a bit:  what did XYZ company do in a similar situation?"
    This gambit forces attention outside your company, to look at competitors and objective information.  You may quickly discover that nobody else has your situation, and you can safely examine how you fell into this self-imposed trap.

  • "Wouldn't it be even better if we just fixed XXX in the next 45 days?"
    Without undercutting the emotional importance of the original question, this strategy lets you focus on a smaller, more solvable problem.  By focusing attention on a deadline and a quick win, you can make progress instead of being bogged down in a "boil the ocean" problem.

  • "I don't know how to answer that mess, but I can solve YYY which gets us part the way there."
    Variant of the previous one.  

Note that statements are usually less powerful than questions, and statements  tend to close off consensus-building.  So, when in jeopardy, remember the rules of Jeopardy! -- to redirect attention away from the DA/DT issue, your answer must always be in the form of a question.

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