Answering Four Questions Well

Answering Four Questions Well

By Mark Chussil

Even a Giant Can Learn to Run,” reported The New York Times on January 2, 2012. IBM is that running giant, and its CEO, Samuel Palmisano, is departing. He leaves behind a remarkable legacy of performance, which he attributes (to the extent one can sum up a decade running IBM in a brief newspaper article) to a guiding framework containing four questions. They are:

  1. “Why would someone spend their money with you — so what is unique about you?”
  2. “Why would somebody work for you?”
  3. “Why would society allow you to operate in their defined geography — their country?”
  4. “Why would somebody invest their money with you?”

Those who read my essays know that I am not often impressed by the mere accumulation of happy numbers, since happy numbers alone do not prove good strategic thinking. Mr. Palmisano asks good questions, but, with all due respect, those questions are not unique.

What I infer made them unique in Mr. Palmisano’s hands is that he evidently saw to it that they were answered honestly and thoughtfully, and that action was taken consistent with those answers.

In a business culture that venerates growth and size above all else, Mr. Palmisano’s IBM chose margins. He allowed IBM to fall to be the world’s second-largest information-technology company, after HP. He even sold solid businesses that no longer fit with IBM’s core, such as IBM’s personal computer operation, a business with nearly $20 billion in annual revenue, reasoning that it would get the best price when it’s performing well . This is MBA 101 in theory, but how often do you see that theory in practice? The thing is, it’s a good theory.

And that’s why I congratulate Mr. Palmisano and IBM. There are as many ways to accumulate happy numbers as there are ways to be lucky, which is to say there are a lot of ways. But applying the diligence and discipline not only to ask good questions but also to answer them well, and to act on the answers, makes those happy numbers well-deserved.

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