"My greatest strength as a consultant," said management guru Peter Drucker, "is to be ignorant and ask a few questions."
Sounds simple. But we often sprint—right past the questions—to an answer.
Recently, for example, my toilet decided, completely on its own, to flush every four minutes.
And I had an answer, the same answer I've got for every toilet problem, assuming it's not overflowing: Flapper. (If overflowing, then the answer changes: Evacuate.)
The flapper is a small device inside the tank that keeps life running smoothly.
I like everything about the flapper. And I like saying "flapper." Sometimes, like in the current situation, I'll say to my wife, "Honey, let's just replace the flapper."
But I'm not sure my wife fully appreciates the flapper. She prefers saying, "Let's just call a plumber."
(I don't have a stellar reputation for home repair. If something's not broken, it usually just means I haven't fixed it yet.)
To replace a flapper:
1) Turn off the water valve.
2) Take your current flapper to Home Depot.
3) Beg them for help.
You'll need help because there's one, teeny, problem with the flapper: it comes in varied shapes and sizes. Insist on a match—pretend you're a surgeon replacing a kidney.
After I installed the new flapper, the toilet got impressively worse. It still flushed incessantly, but now made a whining noise, as if to say, "Please, just shoot me."
Also, my kidney started to hurt.
Here's where I could have asked a few questions.
If Peter Drucker had been here, he'd have asked some questions, starting with, "Why am I in this bathroom, and why is this toilet so frenzied?"
"Why?" jolts your thinking. Innovators ask "Why?" all the time.
"Why," Michael Dell wondered, "do computers cost 5 times their component parts?" That question inspired him to create Dell Computer ("The Innovator's DNA," HBR, 12/09).
If I had asked, Why?—Why is this crazy toilet still not working?—I might have speculated: 1) I bought the wrong flapper, or 2) I bought the right flapper, but the wrong house.
Any other possibilities? Yes. 3) Good house, good toilet, good flapper, bad installation.
#3, the culprit, would have been an easy fix. But because I didn't spend two minutes on questions, I later spent $100 on a plumber.
Tip #1: Got a problem? Slow down, ask yourself a few questions.
Tip #2: I'm not saying one thing works for every situation, but consider: Kohler 2 in. Flapper, $7.90.
© Copyright 2012 Paul Hellman. All rights reserved.
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Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.
Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston and serves on the board of Career Partners International.
Cindy Atoji Keene is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years experience. E-mail her directly here.
Peter Post is the author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business." Email questions about business etiquette to him directly here.
Stu Coleman, a partner and general manager at WinterWyman, manages the firm's Financial Contracting division, and provides strategic staffing services to Boston-area organizations needing Accounting and Finance workforce solutions and contract talent.
Tracy Cashman is a partner and the general manager of the Information Technology search division at WinterWyman. She has 20 years of experience partnering with clients in the Boston area to conduct technology searches in a wide variety of industries and technology.
Paul Hellman is the founder of Express Potential, which specializes in executive communication skills. He consults and speaks internationally on how to capture attention & influence others. Email him directly here.