The cost of asking a question

A simple question…

One time when I was running a large corporate organization, I asked the financial analyst in the business, “What is the current headcount in my organization?”

He said, “How accurate an answer do you need?”

I said, “What do you mean?”. At this point I honestly thought he would have said something like, “1,134”.

But then he said, if you want a number within 10 percent, I could let you know by the end of the day, but if you want a more accurate number, it will take a day or two so I can get inputs from my counterparts around the world. If you want a really accurate number it will probably take me a couple of weeks to work with them to check all the systems globally, to understand the number of people leaving and open reqs.”

I was stunned…

That was a big eye opener for me!

Thank god he asked! I never would have intended to have him work on this for two weeks and involve many other people.

I did not understand the potential cost of my question. In reality, I was mostly just curious.

The cost

But if he didn’t clarify, and if he ran with this request as an important, urgent request from an executive, the organization would have wasted loads of time to accommodate it. No one would have questioned it.

When an executive asks a question, the multiplier effect on the work done throughout the organization can be a very expensive thing.

I see organizations grind to a halt chasing information requested from executives.

Often this can be overcome with some simple communication.

First and foremost remember…Not all executive requests are created equal.

Sometimes it’s a big deal with the world watching, and sometimes it’s just a casual request or curiosity.

Organizations have a tendency to accept all executive requests as urgent and vitally important, just because it’s the executive asking the question.

Clarify and Communicate

Never just start working on something.

The first thing you should do when given a task is to start thinking, not start working.

Pause. Think: how much does this matter, really?

You need to clarify.

The more you clarify, the less work you will need to do. And the less re-work you will need to do later.

Here are some straightforward clarifying questions you can ask an executive to find out how much work you should really be doing on the request.

So I can do the best job possible for you…

1. Can you help me understand what will this be used for? What do you need to make happen with this after you get this from me? Is the way we did this last time very useful for you? Or should we think about a better way to accomplish the outcome?

2. How much time and cost do you want this effort to take? Is this worth a big investment? Is this worth moving resources from something else? Or should I be looking for a way to do this as minimally and efficiently as possible?

The cost of Detail

Many times, simply taking the time to communicate and clarify as described above can save the day.

But there are also executives out there who are detail-addicted, micromanagers who just want to keep sending people out on searches for more and more data, and requesting more and more detailed modifications to studies and presentations.

In this case as well,

you are always better of to show the cost than to not show the cost.

Keep track of all these requests and keep a time log of the work that was done to satisfy them, and the outcome of that work.

Sometimes you can get the executive to see that the cost of chasing after and reviewing so much detail is not having a business impact. It doesn’t always work, but you are always much better off having the data about the cost than not having it.

You’ll always be in a stronger position of you understand, keep track of and are able to communicate the cost of gathering data.

The opportunity cost of further study

Even after you add up all the time spent chasing and gathering data to improve a decision, you also have to take into account the cost of the time lost studying instead of doing.

If you take an extra 3 weeks to gather more data instead of moving forward, you have the cost of data gathering itself, as well as the cost of the 3 week lag of getting started.

One of the questions about this I elaborate on in my book MOVE is, “If you spend another X weeks collecting more data, what might you learn that would cause you to make a different decision than you would make right now? And is that information acutally learnable?

If not — MOVE.

It’s really important for organizations to understand an align on how much they are investing (and why) on getting questions answered beyond the point it is adding more value.

What do you think?

What do you think about these ideas? What would you add? Join the conversation about this on my Facebook page.

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