Executive Careers Blog

Unclog Your Thinking: Ask Questions, Fix Toilets

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.

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 inch Flapper, $7.90.

Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (www.expresspotential.com),  Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. He is the author of “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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