Ask a Better Question

Southwest Airlines faced a dilemma early in its operation—a cash shortage was forcing it to sell one of its four airplanes. The implications are obvious—selling the airplane generates cash for operations and cuts capacity to generate future revenue.

Government leaders are facing their version of this challenge in budget meetings across the country. Should we raise taxes and fees in a difficult economy, or do we cut services at a time when they may be needed most?

There are those who would maintain and even raise taxes on at least some – and perhaps all – individuals and groups to maintain or expand services. There are others who would make massive spending cuts and shut off all but the most essential services because they can’t be sustained.

So who’s right? The answer is probably obvious to you, and it just might be wrong.

Consider the words of Albert Einstein: “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” 

We got into our funding mess based on a level of thinking that is no longer useful in today’s realities.

The Southwest Response

The Southwest CEO responded to his crisis by asking a better question: How can we maintain the same number of flights with 25 percent fewer airplanes? The potential solutions were limited. The planes couldn’t fly any faster, take off any earlier, or land any later at the airports served. The one thing the company could control was the length of time an airplane was on the ground between flights. That solution—to turn an airplane in 25 minutes or less—plays an important role in Southwest’s continued success.

Moving Forward

Now is the time for leaders to reframe the budget, spending, and deficit conversations. Here are three places to begin:

  • Challenge yourself and others: What are the traditional assumptions that need to be challenged about the services you offer? How could resources be deployed in new ways? What would it take to engage government agencies in a meaningful, sustained effort to rethink how they operate? The extra effort to address these questions will pay dividends.
  •  Engage staff to think and act differently: My experience is that the majority of government employees are just like the majority of private-sector employees. They start their careers wanting to do a good job and have the life sucked out of them by managers who are unwilling or unable to engage them. They know thousands of small ways to do things more efficiently and effectively, and they sit on them because they know that they will be punished for challenging the status quo.

 Isn’t it time to present a problem and ask the people closest to it for solutions? As one of my municipal government clients says, “Elected officials are amateurs managing a group of professionals.” Create a sense of urgency and excitement about change. Now is the time to put your good intentions about empowerment and engagement to work.

  •  Keep the focus squarely on the customer: Citizens are concerned about two things: service and cost. Prove your value by tying every measure and reward to these areas. Be clear on the businesses you are in. Understand what you can be the best at and what needs to be provided through other means.

This Applies to You, Too

Constant media attention makes us acutely aware of the government’s inability to solve its financial problems. But, the need to ask better questions faces every business, every family, and every individual. The solution that will give you a sustainable advantage could be there for the claiming.

The quality of the answers we receive in our lives is in direct proportion to the quality of the questions we ask. Isn’t it time to ask a better question? The answer might surprise you.

About the Author:

Randy Pennington
Randy Pennington is an award-winning author and a leading authority on helping organizations deliver positive results in a world of accelerating change. To learn more or to hire Randy for your next meeting, visit www.penningtongroup.com or call 972-980-9857.