How to Apply Drucker to Your Business by Asking Questions

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This is a guest post from William Cohen, the author of more than 50 books on leadership and strategy and the first graduate of the PhD program developed by Peter Drucker for practicing managers. His most recent book is: "Peter Drucker on Consulting--How to Apply Drucker's Principles for Business Success." For more information, see William's bio at the bottom of this article.

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Peter Drucker, the “Father of Modern Management,” was a towering genius of the type that some say appear only once every hundred years or so.

I can’t verify the number, but I have looked at the issue as I am frequently asked, “Who is the new Drucker?” I am forced to admit that while there are many excellent management thinkers and writers around, there is no Drucker among them. A glance at history and other human endeavors and professions indicates that the basic statement is probably correct for in general. One doesn’t find an Einstein very often, either.

Drucker's Legacy and the Challenge in Applying It:

Fortunately Drucker left much information in his books, videos, tapes, and other publications. Yet there is a serious challenge. Drucker himself proclaimed that nothing happens without someone taking action. Drucker ended his public seminars with a single statement: “Don’t tell me that you enjoyed my seminar. Tell me what you are going to do differently Monday morning.” Drucker wanted action and in his seminars and classes he guided and urged all to take action.

The challenge comes because when Drucker wrote, he wrote what to do, but he rarely wrote how to do it. Of course in his classes it was different. He was all about specific applications from his experience, and students were invited to express their opinions and approaches before he divulged the actual outcomes.

That is, he not only proclaimed theory, he taught application and got his students involved in taking action. He further cited the specifics of what his students should and should not do. When one should communicate with the boss in writing, and when this should be done verbally. How supervisors should staff their organizations. How to become a top executive, and a lot more.

Students that could attend Drucker’s MBA and PhD classes --- first at New York University, and later at Claremont Graduate School (now called the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management at Claremont Graduate University) in Claremont, California were treated to the real thing. But this first person source is gone, Drucker having died in 2005. Today we may have books, tapes, videos, etc. But Drucker himself is not around to explain his “what to dos” and turn them into “how to do its”. Fortunately, there is a way.

Applying Drucker without Drucker:

The ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius said: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” Doing and understanding is critical. It is why Drucker always asked his seminar attendees: “Tell me what you are going to do differently Monday morning.” He knew that if he could get them to take action and applying what he had taught them, they would understand his theories and be able to apply them.

Otherwise it had just been a pleasant afternoon with fleeting memories and really little understanding and longtime use of what he taught.

Drucker and Confucius were Right:

But Confucius and Drucker’s thinking on application isn’t just a theory. Confucius and Drucker have both been confirmed in the laboratory. Dr. Carol Dweck at Stanford University compared learning by lecture and memorization vs. learning by doing and fully understanding the concept.

The results were about the same until different sets of problems were presented of a type with which the student was unfamiliar. Yet they could still be solved by applying the same principle. Under these conditions learning by lecture and tests did very poorly whereas as those who had learned by doing and understanding did pretty well. Professor Dweck stated the difference between the two was getting an “A” in French based on a professor’s lecture on French grammar and vocabulary and actually speaking French in the marketplace.

How Drucker Got Consulting Clients Doing by Asking Questions:

Drucker was a highly successful but different kind of consultant because it too was based on the client doing and understanding for results. Most consultants saw their job as providing answers and solutions. Drucker made his clients active participants in the engagement. He didn’t provide answers. He asked questions and with guidance helped clients find their own solutions by their thinking and taking action.

Asked by the founders of the investment bank Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette in 1974, “What should our business be?” Drucker responded with: “I shall not attempt to answer the question what your business should be. I can only ask questions. The answers have to be yours.”

Twenty years later Drucker wrote a 56-page report for Coca-Cola that explored distribution, branding, advertising, the structure of the company’s bottling operations and a lot more. However his approach was once again to ask questions: “This report raises questions,” Drucker wrote Coke. “It does not attempt to give answers.”

How to Apply Drucker to Your Business by Asking His 5 Basic Questions:

If Drucker could teach Drucker by asking questions followed by their action, so can we. Here’s how to do it. First, begin by asking yourself or your team Drucker’s five basic questions:

  1. What is your mission or business?
  2. Who is your customer?
  3. What does your customer value?
  4. What results do you seek?
  5. What is your plan?

Famed GE CEO Jack Welch, who many call the most outstanding corporate manager of the last century, credits Drucker’s questions to his success. He had pretty much answered questions one through three when he contacted Drucker. When he got to results he undoubtedly mentioned increasing profitability. Drucker asked a sub question to number four: "What businesses should GE emphasize or discard?" This led Welch to his plan which involved discarding businesses if they were not, or could not become number one or two in their market. The company’s value as a result of executing this plan led GE’s value to increase 4000%.

If you want similar results in your business or non-profit, apply Drucker by asking questions!

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About William Cohen: 

“Bill” Cohen was the first graduate of the PhD program Drucker co-developed for senior practicing managers. Using Drucker’s methods, Cohen was re-commissioned in the U.S. Air Force and rose to the rank of major general. He is currently president of a MBA-granting non-profit graduate school teaching Drucker’s methods and is the author of more than 50 books on leadership and strategy which have been published in 23 languages. His latest book is Peter Drucker on Consulting (LID, 2016).  You can contact him via e-mail