02 March 2017

The 99 Essential Business Questions

To take you beyond the obvious management actions

Gia Campari, David Glassman, Michael Jeans, Patrick McHugh, David Peregrine-Jones, David Shannon, Benjamin Taylor
Filament Publishing, 360 pages,

Reviewer: Vicky Pryce

This book is a collaboration between a number of long standing members of the Worshipful company of Management Consultants, bringing their collective experience of over 200 years of professional practice to bear to solving organisational problems. It is not a proper management book though, by any stretch of the imagination. It is a ‘workbook’ with case studies and appropriate questions, which if asked in time and pursued to their conclusions, may have had a different, often happier outcome for organisations trying to solve problems.

As the authors say, the important first step for getting the right answers is to ask the right questions. Consultancy itself has moved from just providing expert advice to creating shareable methodologies for approaching a problem and to mentoring executives so as to encourage organisations to come to the right solutions themselves. Not every entity that hires consultants necessarily wants to move that way; it takes time and commitment and of course leadership. It is always easier to blame arms-length consultants for unpopular decisions such as downsizing, divestments and other organisational changes that the board wants to make but can’t get buy-in for easily across the company. And consultants are often fingered for any failure in strategy, which should of course be the responsibility of the entire board. What is often missing is a proper cost benefit analysis, a full understanding of what implementation bottlenecks there might be and action to deal with unintended consequences.

That is of course economists’ territory. Rule number one for me therefore is not to make plans in a vacuum. One organisation I knew well was routinely issuing strategy documents and then yearly revenue targets for each department which always assumed growth of some 25% in the year. Sometimes, when irrational exuberance had taken over, even 50%. As this book would tell you, if one had asked the right questions that would never have been the outcome of the annual budgeting process. In other words in this case the main questions should have been: what does the evidence tell you? How fast is the overall market growing? Has this hoped for growth in the organisation’s revenue happened before in any sustained way and if so what was the reason? Was there an exceptional pattern then that may not exist today? What are the constraints to growth? And what have been the main revenue determining factors in the longer run?

Interestingly in this case when revenue grew faster than that of other market participants it was due to a short term outmanoeuvring of the competition which could never last long, or buying market share through an acquisition or merger. But without that the econometric studies showed that revenue growth was most closely aligned to nominal GDP growth with a lag of a year.

So the book is right. One has to ask the right questions. But whoever asks also has to listen to the answers. Without that failed strategies or failed leaders will still abound.

I have to declare an interest. I was Master of the Company in 2010-11 and the seven authors of the book are my fellow liverymen, three of them in fact, past Masters themselves. A fun book, a manual of sorts with the added eccentricity of space left in the book for the reader/ strategist to take notes as they go though it. Of course, the authors haven’t necessarily covered all eventualities. The questions are bound to evolve. But the book at least provides an essential basis for the start for the conversation.