The hidden cost of asking a question

cost of a question

A simple question…

One time when I was running a large organization at HP, I asked my financial analyst partner, “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, “1134”.

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 probably take me a couple of weeks to check all the systems, and get inputs from my counterparts around the world, and then check with HR about exits and pending offers…”

That was a big eye opener for me.

#1. Thank god he asked! I never would have intended to have him work on this for two weeks and involve loads of other people. I was mostly just curious.

#2. I realized that when an executive asks a question, the multiplier effect on the work done throughout the organization can be a very expensive thing.

So I have two points to make in this blog — One for the executives asking the question, and one for the recipient of those questions.

1. If you are the recipient of executive requests…

Really know that 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. They are not!

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? Is this just for you? or do you need this because someone else is asking? Do you know why they are asking and what they need it 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?

2. If you are the executive making requests…

Whenever you are making a request, you should always be thinking of the cost of getting your outcome.

Know that even asking what seems to you a simple question can send dozens of people running around for weeks.

So each time you make a request, also share the relative importance of the request to other work, and give it a budget. “Get me whatever you can accomplish in 2 hours”, or “Drop everything for the next week until this is done.”

Don’t make the person guess. And don’t inadvertently encourage them to stop doing something that is actually more important unless it is really worth it.

The Business Review

The worst version of this is the infamous “business review”.

When you ask an organization to do a business review, you might put 2 hours or half a day on your calendar a few weeks out. That’s what it’s worth to you on your calendar.

But you need to be aware that this one request can completely paralyze your whole organization. The internal review (to impress you), becomes the urgent business priority, and virtually all work on the business itself stops for weeks to prepare.

Too much time spent on internal reviewing!

In the last two weeks alone, I have had 3 different organizations at 3 different companies tell me that they are preparing for an executive business review and therefore can’t do anything else for the next 2 – 3 weeks.

Regularly, when I talk with mid-level managers about time management challenges, one of their biggest challenges is the fact that they are required to spend so much time preparing for business reviews for executives, that they can’t get their work done.

Of course, business reviews have their place.

As an executive, especially if you are on the board, you need to satisfy yourself that the business is running properly, and that the work you have committed is getting done.

Getting (only) what you need from a business review

But you need to find a way to ask the questions, get the answers, and feel like you are in the loop of how the business is doing, without creating risk by how you ask.

Because it’s important to realize that way you review the business may be one of the biggest risks to actually succeeding in your business.

Here is how I have dealt with this as an executive.

Don’t just ask for a review.

1. Sit down with your business team to discuss what you truly need to learn from the review.
2. Budget the amount of time that preparing the review is worth.
3. Make the amount of time spent on preparing the review part of the review. Shine a spotlight on this and decide with your team what is reasonable.
4. Articulate the key control points in the business, and what the desired outcomes and measures are for those, before the review prep starts.
5. Identify key risk areas you want to see the plans for.
6. Create a 1 page dashboard that the team needs to report on.

The key thought here, is that the materials you use to review the business should be ones that the business is using to run the business, not some special 100 slide presentation that was only prepared for your review.

My guideline when I was running a $1B business software business, was that I never wanted a team to spend more than 1 week elapsed time, and no one person should spend more than 2 hours preparing for an internal review. I want to see what you are actually doing, using the same artifacts you are using to run your part of the business. Don’t create new stuff. Let’s talk about what’s really happening, not some artificial presentation designed to impress me with it’s polish.

Get over your addiction to detail

The other thing that I see becoming a huge time sink in organizations is when the executives are so addicted to detail that they insist that even the lowest level of detail be dragged up and vetted through every level of management and reviewed and inspected over and over again.

Moving detail up kills organizational effectiveness, is hugely expensive, and introduces more risk than it averts.

As an executive, if you think that your personally examining lots of detail is helping your organization, it isn’t.

I’ll write about this next week…

What do you think?

Join the conversation about this on my facebook page.

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About Patty
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Patty Azzarello is an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/Business Advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35 and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk)

You can find Patty at, follow her on twitter or facebook, or read her book RISE…3 Practical Steps for Advancing Your Career, Standing Out as a Leader, AND Liking Your Life.


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You can find Patty at, follow her on twitter or Facebook, or read her books RISE and MOVE.

Addiction to Detail
Managing Your Boss