Drucker’s Enduring Questions

Peter Drucker wrote dozens of books with answers and insights, but among his greatest strengths was asking the right questions.

Writer Warren Berger picked up on Drucker’s ability in a recent item at his blogA More Beautiful Question. This week, in a piece for Fast Company, Berger again quoted Drucker while asking five other leading business minds to submit a question that every company should ask itself.

All five of the questions—including “What is our company’s purpose on this earth?” “Where is our petri dish?” and “How can we make a better experiment”—are all interesting and quite Drucker-like. But two in particular jumped out at us.

The first comes from Jack Bergstrand, of the Drucker Institute’s partner consulting firm Brand Velocity, who asks, “What should we stop doing?” The second comes from Clayton Christensen, of Harvard Business School, who asks, “If we didn’t have an existing business, how could we best build a new one?”

Berger calls Christensen’s question a “cousin” of one posed by Intel’s co-founder Andy Grove: If the current CEO were kicked out of the company, what would the new CEO do? For our part, we would call Christensen’s question a full sibling of Bergstrand’s question about what to stop doing.

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David -- Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David — Image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Drucker wrote often about planned abandonment, and we have written about it a lot, too: herehere, and here, for instance. What we’d add to our previous posts is the extent to which even a seemingly distinct question such as Christensen’s—How would we build a new business if the old one didn’t exist?—actually ties back to the same notion of abandonment.

In fact, Drucker’s test for whether some business activity ought to be abandoned was to ask whether, if you were starting from scratch, you’d still be doing that activity—in other words, pretty much Christensen’s line of inquiry.

If the answer to “would we still do this if we weren’t already doing it?” was no, Drucker said, then you must take immediate action to try to cease. “One does not say: ‘Let’s make another study,’” Drucker wrote in Managing in Turbulent Times. “One says, ‘How can we get out; or at least, how can we stop putting additional resources in?’”

Drucker granted that there were exceptions. “Sometimes abandonment is not the answer, and may not even be possible,” he averred in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “But then at least one limits further efforts and makes sure that productive resources of men and money are no longer devoured by yesterday.”

What about you? What question do you recommend that every business ask itself?