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What Can We Be Doing Better?

“What can we be doing better?” a team lead asks me.

This is a well-intentioned question, but a poor one.

‘What can we do better?’ is a lower-effort substitute for more precise questions:

  • How can we increase profit?
  • Does my team consist of ‘A Players?’
  • Are our Q4 goals realistic?
  • Is my agency’s service worth their cost?
  • Should we replicate the activity that we believe is responsible for our competitor’s success?
  • Should I take my ‘buddy’s’ advice?

We ask low-effort questions because it’s easy. And we’re lazy.

We expect others to interpret our implicit needs with little information, fill in the gaps, and then give us a solution.

‘Is everything okay?’ is a catch-all we ask our loved ones to gauge how their day went, whether our behavior was appropriate, and if their love for us remains strong, among other things.

The first step to doing things better, or to doing better things, is to ask better questions.

If you want to ask a better question, figure out what you want.

How can you get what you want if you don’t ask for it? How can you ask for it, if you don’t know what you want?

Most of us don’t know what we want for most of the time. People struggle to decide what they want for lunch (“I don’t know. What are you in the mood for?”), let alone from life.

One way to figure out what you want is to state what you don’t want, and reverse it.

Here are a few examples.

If you don’t want to Then you may want to
Gain more weight Exercise

Eat healthier

Reduce daily caloric intake Increase daily anaerobic output
Invest in activities that are not contributing to business outcomes Identify and improve activities that acquire and retain valuable users and customers

Identify and stop activities that do not contribute to acquiring and retaining valuable users and customers
Proceed with activities without a way to measure outcomes Define metrics to measure a team or activity’s contribution to company KPIs

Hire a business intelligence team to better understand users and customers
Lack clarity about how you compare to competitors Benchmark your performance against publicly available data from competitors

Compare your current performance against your historical performance
Not provide employees with coaching and paths to improve their skills Find a functional advisor to fill in gaps in expertise or experience

Sign your team up for management workshops so they can better sponsor, manage, and coach from within

Another way to summon what you want to do better, and to determine what’s worth doing better, is to think about where you spend most of your time.

What are you spending a lot of time on?

Record your activities or your team’s activities for a week, categorize them (e.g. customer research; business development; branding; design), and then ask yourself the following questions about the category of work or an activity that’s dominating your calendar.

Let X stand for a category of work.

  • Do you want to do X at all?
  • Do you want to do X with higher quality?
  • Do you want to do X faster?
  • Do you want to do X cheaper?

Now, let’s apply these questions to an imaginary scenario wherein I’m running a business and spending 40% of my waking hours on bookkeeping, one of the most dreadful business operations activities I can think of.

1. Do I want to bookkeep at all?
No, but I must. And when it comes to the things that I don’t want to do, but must do, I have a simple formula: outsource them.

What I want: I want to find a company, person, or technology I can reliably outsource all of my bookkeeping needs to.

2. Do I want higher quality bookkeeping?
No, so long as my financial statements are accurate and my accountant has what he needs on time.

Bookkeeping is a requirement of my business, but not its competency, so status quo double-entry works for me.

3. Do I want faster bookkeeping?
No, I’ve not missed a tax deadline and I don’t have cash flow issues, so any improvement in speed unnecessary and likely to go unnoticed. I could even afford slower bookkeeping.

4. Do I want cheaper bookkeeping?
Yes. Since I don’t have any problems with the accuracy or speed of my bookkeeping, it’s probable that I could find a cheaper service provider. After all, the accountant I chose was the first person that was recommended to me, so I don’t have a strong sense of market rates and service.

What I want: I want to find a bookkeeper or service that is at least 20% less costly than my current provider.

In conclusion, I want to find a bookkeeping solution that is reliable and costs 20% less than my current provider. Can you help?

Once you are clearer on what you would like to improve, then your team, consultant, or board, can step in and help. They can work on answering the right question – solving for your need, foreseeing obstacles, and estimating the likelihood of improvement and the likelihood of the size of that improvement.

If you don’t know what you want to do better, be clear that you are asking a third-party to help you discover problems worth solving. Keep in mind that they’ll likely gravitate toward the problems they’ve seen before and know how to solve.

Know what you want, then ask for it.

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