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The Art of the Killer Question

Aug 12, 2018 | Blog

What are the best questions you could ever ask in business ?

The novelist Rudyard Kipling learnt his craft on the Civil and Military Gazette, in Lahore, India, at the zenith of Empire. There he realised the art of asking the right questions. Later he captured this in his famous lines:

I KEEP six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew;)
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

Tricky questions may be jolly japes for Jeremy Paxman but in the boardroom they are heat seeking, value missiles. Critical questioning is a leadership essential.

Well-crafted interrogation is not only a weapon of mass destruction but also the oxygen of progress.

Peter Drucker, to many the foremost pioneer of modern management thinking, has five critical questions which he regards as his strategic Howitzers.

  1. What is our mission ?
  2. Who is our customer ?
  3. What does the customer value ?
  4. What are our results ?
  5. What is our plan ?

The simplest questions are often the most difficult to answer. So, could you answer the Drucker Five in your business ? Would there be consensus if you threw them in around the boardroom table ?

Drucker also believes that the best time to ask these is when your company is doing well. The answers are the key to avoiding or, at least, postponing failure.

Driven by the “Famous Five” of Peter Drucker, The Edge has compiled our own Magnificent Seven.

  1. Are we clear about our purpose?
  2. How will we measure that?
  3. What will success look like?
  4. How would we explain that if it appeared on the front of The FT?
  5. What will be your legacy?
  6. Is that sustainable?
  7. Why do we do that?

These are not only great questions to ask in the boardroom, they are also great questions to expect when the floor is yours.

My favourite questions

Sitting sipping cocktails in an upmarket London bar one night with the CEO of a well known British company, a friend of mine who is a well known non executive decided to have a bit of sport.

“What are the three things that could get you sacked as CEO?” he asked.

Just as the Chief Executive was spluttering, looking for an answer in his Singapore Sling, my friend followed on.

“…and what are you doing to make sure they don’t happen?”

Both questions worth considering….at length.

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