• The Three Vital Questions

    by  • February 19, 2013 • Research, Strategy

    One of the things that I have been faced with as an analyst and an advisor to leaders in businesses, government agencies, and non-profits is that they all have problems and the reason they engage with me is they need help to solve them. Whether it is a vendor who is trying to better understand their market, their customers, and their competitors, or a government agency trying to better engage with citizens, or an end client firm trying to design a strategy to solve a business problem, all of these are issues and problems that are beyond the ability for these firms to quickly solve.

    At the beginning of my advisory career, I worked with some fabulous companies and government agencies. Each of these companies were facing some significant issue that was important to be solved, as quickly and painlessly as possible. As a rookie, I figured the reason they came to me was because I was their proverbial knight on the white horse. My wisdom and insight were suppose to save the day. So I was quick to dispense my wisdom and experience primarily in the form of an educated opinion. And often, it didn’t work because I really didn’t understand what it was they wanted me to do. Wow, did I have a lot to learn!

    Since then, I have learned that not every vendor wants me to tell them how to redefine one of their markets, or compile a view of the competitors. And not every end user company wants me to design their strategy for them or tell them what technology to implement. I have (re)learned that companies are made up of people, and that there are people on the other end of these requests. People who need to be listened to, who need their ideas or direction validated, and need to be supported.

    So before I start spouting off all of my wisdom to a product manager, a marketing manager, a CMO, or even a CEO, I have learned to ask the vital question – Do you want me just to listen, do you want my opinion, or do you want me to fix the problem?

    • Do you want me just to listen? As an advisor, often times I have served as a platform for people in different roles within companies just to vent to about the customer, the technology, some vendor, their boss, etc. This is often the most difficult one for me and other advisors to do – to just listen. But people need to be heard. In some cases, if they are given the space to talk through it in an open and supportive environment, they can come to a better solution then I would have suggested all by themselves.
    • Do you want my opinion? As an advisor, my primary job is to share with you my opinion in the form of an analysis. Yes, it is based upon experience and usually a lot of research, but it essentially comes down to my interpretation of the problem against research I have conducted through interviews, surveys, briefings, and normative analysis that results in a subjective interpretation of facts to arrive at the advice I offer. Simply put, no two advisors even with the same background and experience will likely offer the same advice. Even though I often have a better foundation of knowledge on which to offer an opinion, that may not be what my client wants.
    • Do you want me to fix the problem? This is a tough one for advisors, as we generally don’t fix problems. We may create strategies that would lead to fixing a problem, or we may recommend vendors and technology solutions that could solve the problem, or we may even redesign a business process for you, but advisors aren’t in the business of fixing problems, as problems are best fixed by those who have ownership in the problem. Often if my clients ask for a problem to be solved, I point them to a more tactical source of assistance. That being said there have been limited times where as an advisor I have engaged in helping a client fix a technology problem. But it isn’t my strength in this role.

    So what does asking this question get me? First, it clearly sets the expectation on what is going to happen and what will be the outcome of this exchange. Second, it puts me in the right mindset to address the concerns of my client in a way that is in alignment to their expectations. For example, I can focus on listening without worrying about a need to respond.

    The great thing about this question is its usefulness with others and in other situations. I use a variation of this with my wife and my children to better frame expectations in a conversation. I also shared this with a friend who is also a VC. He now uses this question or a variation of it with the different companies he works with so he knows how to respond to their requests.

    How could you use this question to help you frame some of your conversations?