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How Drucker Used His Ignorance*

by William A. CohenDecember 2015

Asked the secret of his success as a consultant a student, Drucker responded, “There is no secret. You just need to ask the right questions?
Asked how he knew the right questions to ask clients, Drucker responded with his amazing secret: “I bring my ignorance to every consulting  engagement. Ignorance is the most important component for helping others to solve any problem in any industry, and Ignorance is not such a bad thing if one knows how to use it.”

Drucker’s Ignorance
I realized that as a manager or a consultant got involved in following Drucker’s advice based on a question, whatever it was, without considerable knowledge, he would be unable to accurately understand the issue. This meant that Drucker was not talking about tactical decisions that needed to be made immediately and on the spot. Such decisions had to be based on prior knowledge and experience. He was talking about more decisions about which one had the time to investigate thoroughly and to reflect upon.

I concluded that what Drucker meant was that a consultant or a manager should not jump in with an immediate solution. And while a manager’s experience and intuition were not to be excluded, he or she had to approach these problems first with an open mind and thus the manager needed to recognize, even emphasize his own ignorance in organizing resources to solve the problem This went along with his oft-repeated phrase, “What everyone knows is usually wrong.” To rely primarily on expertise or on what everyone know was equally dangerous to the problem’s optimal solution. That this was in fact what Drucker meant was confirmed some years later in a personal discussion over lunch.

Left Brain Problem Solving and Problem Definition
I categorized two major approaches to managerial problem solving, both of which involved beginning from a point of “ignorance.” Essentially these involved emphasizing the left-brain and right-brain methods; essentially; logic and analysis versus reliance on creativity and emotion. Of course, both approaches can be combined. Most importantly, both are applicable by managers directly or by consultants assisting them. The important basic is to approach the problem with ignorance and you’ll become knowledgeable as you proceed since both methods involve amassing, organizing, and analyzing additional information available. In this article I’ll discuss left brain problem solving. The left brain approach starts with problem definition.

That you can’t get “there” until you know where “there” is obvious. That’s my way of emphasizing that in order to solve any problem, you’ve got first to understand exactly what the problem is. That’s the “there” in a problem situation. To define this you need to uncover the central problem that’s causing the situation you want to correct.

Defining the central problem in a particular situa¬tion is the single most difficult, most important task in most con¬sulting issues. If you correctly identify the main problem in a situation, you can find many different ap-proaches to solving it that may work. But if the wrong problem is identified, even a brilliant solution will not help.

One of the major errors made in defining the central problem is confusing the symptoms with the problem. For example, low profits or sales are not a central problem but a symptom of something else that is the central problem. Frequently a consulting engagement has more than one problem. The object then is to locate the main problem in the situation, the one that is more important than any other and is therefore "central." It may be causing many of the other problems. If you find more than one major problem in a particular situation; you should handle each one separately.

Write out a one-sentence central problem if at all possible. Be aware, however, that even if you have spent some time in both identifying the problem and wording it as concisely as possible, in many cases you will have to go back and modify it as you proceed through the analysis.

Also be careful not to word the problem as if it were the solution, by assuming one particular course of action is cor¬rect before you analyze it. Your goal at this point is to identify as many different possible courses of action as possible. Try not to word your statement so that only two alternatives are possible. For example, don't ask the question, "Should a new product be introduced?" That allows for only two alter¬natives: yes or no. Occasionally there are some situations where only two alternatives need to be analyzed. Usually, how¬ever, you can reword the problem statement in a way that opens it up to more than two courses of action.

Be careful about making your problem statement too long by incorporating various additional factors. Even if these factors are relevant, they will make the problem statement unwieldy, awkward, and difficult for any reader to under¬stand.

With these cautionary notes in mind, you can begin formulating your problem statement. Phrase it as a question, beginning with who, what, when, where, how, or why. Or you may start with an infinitive, as in "To determine the best source for borrowing $xxx,xxx.”

Drucker knew all this and after considerable experience, didn’t even to write it all out. In many situations he simply asked the question or questions of a client, and they were able to get to this important central issue at once. Drucker spent a lot of time fine-tuning the central problem . He knew that working on the wrong problem was not only a waste of time, it meant a waste resources and money, too and invariably resulted in the wrong solution.

Relevant Factors
Factors may be facts, estimates, speculations, assumptions, time and money limitations and more. All must be documented, and many should be tested before they are even listed. Most importantly, the word relevant is there because, even though there will be many different factors in any situation, you must determine and list only those that are relevant to the central problem you described.

Alternative Courses of Action
Although theoretically it is possible to have an alternative with all advantages and no disadvantages, this is highly unlikely. If this were the case, the solution would be self ¬evident, and this problem-solving procedure would be unneeded.

All alternatives have both advantages and disadvantages. Jack Welch probably sold off some really valuable companies using his requirement of one of his businesses either being or capable of becoming one or two in its industry. Welch knew that there could be mistakes and there were enormous risks as well.

The Analysis
During the analysis, the manager essentially compares the relative importance of each alternatives’ advantages and disadvantages.  Some alternatives have few disadvantages, but no great advantage either. In any case, the manager needs to think it through and document his thinking. This helps this left-brain method to be really effective in explaining the final conclusions and recommendations to others after a clear solution is developed.

Here is a good test of the clarity of your thinking so far: Show the entire written document up to this point to someone who is unfamiliar with the problem. Have this individual read everything down to your discussion and analysis. Then ask what his or her conclusions are. If they are identical to yours, you have correctly worded your discussion and analysis. If his are different, you have made an error either in the wording of the discussion and analysis or in the logic of your conclusions.

Conclusions and Recommendations
It is important to precisely list the conclusions arrived at as a result of your discussion and analysis. Do not add any expla¬nations; they belong in the previous section. Also don't list conclusions based on information extraneous to your analy¬sis: Your conclusions are based solely on your discussion and analysis. Don’t make the mistake of restating relevant factors as conclusions.

Finally, we get to recommendations to your client. Easy. Just state your recommendations as to what your client should do to solve the central problem you have identified and defined. If you are presenting this orally, your client can always ask additional questions; if this is a written report, your client can always contact you for additional information. However, if you have done the analysis cor¬rectly, there will be no need to explain your recommenda¬tions; your reasons will be obvious from your discussion and analysis.
Did Drucker do all this in his head? I doubt it. There are limits even to genius. Knowing him, he did not allow for chance. Except for the rarest of general consulting issues, he would have had things well worked out with notes ready, and fully prepared with his questions, even if he didn’t use more attractive Presentation Slides.

*Adapted from Peter Drucker’s Consulting Principles to be published by LID in 2016.

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