3 Questions and a List

Find opportunities and solutions hiding in plain sight

When I have taken over teams, brands, or companies, there are many opinions about what the needs of the company are and where my initial focus should be. If a new leader is coming in, there’s a reason, and often the reasonable expectation that things only get better once I start - whether they are good on their way to be great, great to be scaled further, or bad and need to be turned around. 

There is often truth in the perspective of key stakeholders, but rarely is a handful of opinions the full story, and never is it enough to just follow that lead and make their opinions my priority. I built a technique of 3 Questions and a List to speed up getting to the right priorities. This is one of the topics Anthony "Pomp" Pompliano and I discussed in his podcast (pasted at the bottom of this article). These practices and the issues they address apply to any industry.

But first, here are some examples (clearly often contradictory from various conversations) of what I’ve been told going into day 1: 

  • No one has given “X” initiative enough time, and it has so much potential

  • The team is spending too much time on “X”

  • The ROI on “X” is just not there

  • This team is amazing, but the leader just wasn’t a fit

  • This team needs work - in many areas

  • A particular person should be promoted

  • A particular executive needs to go

  • “X” initiative is a billion-dollar idea 

  • The leadership team just needs direction

  • The leadership team just needs to be held accountable

  • This business should be more profitable (no one ever says it’s too profitable)

  • They aren’t making the right investments

  • You should reduce the marketing spend

  • You should increase the marketing spend

  • Cut the buildout cost in half

  • Go find more premium real estate

  • Technology investments are out of control

  • We have nowhere near enough technological investment or strategy

Of course, I listen to owners, investors, and key leaders on the front end or from the outside. But what matters equally if not more is what I can learn from the inside. The truth is, sometimes things need to be left alone (for now) and should be better explained to the board, investors, or other leaders. Other times, entire initiatives or teams need to change. And then there is a range of improvements needed in the middle of those extremes to push the business and team forward as a new leader. 

I’ve developed my own method to quickly tease out priorities for the biggest issues to address and opportunities to go after. It requires a bit of time, a prioritization of spending time in the business, close to the transaction. It does not require capital investment, large expense, or technology (although certain tech resources can help or amplify this process and its outcomes). 

I visit and talk to as many people who are close to the action (or the transaction) in as compressed of a time period as possible. Depending on the business format, that would include, but not be limited to these areas: call center, help desk, delivery drivers, sales teams, front line workers, or service providers. Of course, I spend time with all teams in the business, but I arc my time toward these groups in the early days. Think of it as ultimate skip-level meetings to gain a deep understanding of the experiences and views of customers and employees who most often connect with them. 

I ask each person the exact same questions. I make notes, and I find patterns. Those patterns become helpful signals on what to stop, start, and continue as well as how to prioritize the long list of things that could easily become overwhelming or distracting. 

Questions to ask frontline workers and managers:

  1. What do we throw away? This is to identify what we can STOP doing. It will help you identify what resources are being wasted

  2. When do we say ‘no’? This is to identify what we could START doing. If customers or employees are asking for something consistently over time, then there’s a reason and possibly an opportunity there

  3. If you were me, what’s one thing you would do differently to make the business better? This answer helps me gut check the answers to the first two and see where there is more energy or if there are any conflicting inputs

Question #1: What do we throw away?

Sometimes, the question is a matter of actual trash; what are customers throwing away or not using, especially if a company's product is a physical object? But the real core of this question is not about the garbage can. It’s about opportunity cost. Often, I need to find resources ($ or time) to fund whatever our best initiatives could be. So, I need to learn if there are things the company is spending time or resources on that the customer or employee no longer values. Processes, products and programs can linger for a long time simply because no one thinks to change them, and they pile up and take up mind space, shelf space, and capital.

These answers helped us know where to streamline operations and cut costs while improving the experience.

Question 2: When do we say “No”?

Once I know what we can and should stop doing, I can repurpose those resources into what we should start doing. But what should we be investing in? Where is there clear evidence that investment has return, that improvement will be valued, where a change moves the needle? I love asking “when do we say no”? This is about seeing the smoke signals customers and employees are sending us for what they want, need, and expect. 

I started by asking about all the times Cinnabon had to say “no” or “sorry” to a customer. I wanted to know what customers were asking for that we didn’t have. I received many answers, but there were clear patterns, and one rose to the top: customers wanted smaller portion sizes instead of only a cinnamon roll the size of your face. This seems obvious now, but there were many business reasons the franchise had avoided doing that. The Minion, and eventually bites, which were already great products in the company (just not consistently carried), became key drivers of growth in the years to come. 

Are there things a company is saying no to that would actually help the business? Why is the company saying no? You know it as well as I do, there are reasons, but they aren't good enough reasons. Companies should ask and answer this question at a pace that will enable them to keep up with a changing customer and competitive environment. 

Question 3: If you were me, what is one thing you would do differently to make the business better?

This question is particularly fascinating. Everyone answers differently, but there are still themes. For example, employees may mention different tools, but all of them may be saying that onboarding is bad. Customers may talk about different menu items or prices, but the theme is the menu is not optimized. It’s the leader’s role to synthesize those answers into a set of priorities and put action behind that list.

I also found it was helpful to keep a version of the last question alive for weeks and months to come. the best way is to have those who are in the trenches, doing the work every day closest to the customer to keep a list of things that get in their way. 

The List: MMDD (Made My Day Difficult) 

I learned this from a restaurant training consultant early in my career. Opening a restaurant is a flurry of activity - construction is happening while interviews and training are going on, while inspectors are in and out of the building, and while media wants to talk about the brand and business. it’s easy for little things to get lost, and one leader can never see all the issues of the team. In addition to the three questions, we would have the manager place an “MMDD” clipboard in every location. 

We asked employees to note what “Made Their Day Difficult” when they had the chance, or at the end of the shift. This is a list of pain points, areas of friction that often are easily solved by the leader, but that team doesn’t necessarily have the ability to fix themselves or address at scale. I remember at one opening, there were so many issues, that someone wrote - finding the time to write down all the issues in this log - ha! That was a particularly messy one, and we started doing mid-shift huddles to catch the big issues, then as it moderated, they had no problem using the list. 

The Process

From the questions and the list, we could clearly see the biggest pain points. Each week (or month, depending on the complexity) we would tackle the most commons answers. This helped their work be more efficient and enjoyable (which also means more profitable for the company). This practice built a culture of asking, answering, and acting on issues and opportunities and speedy improvement. This simple process is rapid, early iteration for a new leader that creates relief, confidence, and loyalty from the team. It’s also important to conduct this friction identification exercise with customers, investors, vendors, and other key stakeholders. 

The better the experience on all sides of the business, the more relevant and preferred we are as a business, partner, or employer. 

Learning to apply the ‘3 Questions and a List’ practice is deceptively simple but has been a key to positively impacting teams and businesses much faster than others. 

I’ve also learned to apply it to my life, asking the same questions and making a similar list for me, personally. It’s wildly powerful!  This and more are covered in this pod with Pomp pasted here - I hope you enjoy it!