Saturday, August 15, 2009

Is That So?

The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life.

A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. Suddenly, without any warning, her parents discovered she was with child.

This made her parents angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin.

In great anger the parents went to the master. "Is that so?" was all he would say.

After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and everything else the little one needed.

A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth -- that the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fishmarket.

The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask his forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back again.

Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was: "Is that so?"

-- Story from "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones"

So often in business, particularly due to its demanding and fast-paced nature, we act more like the parents in this story. We don't take the time to look deeply at the root cause of our problems. Much as "Beginners Mind" suggests that I look at each experience as though I had never seen it before -- even if I have "been there, done that" -- "Is that so?" says to me: "Don't be so sure you know the answer."

Many times we assume we know someone's motives or create a story around what someone meant when they said this or that, and we don't take time to verify the validity of our story. Maybe, because we've witnessed certain employee behaviors in the past and know how to recognize "signs," we draw conclusions without fully investigating the specific matter in depth.

I have often been sent on the wrong course in a business decision because I assumed I knew the answer but was, in fact, mistaken. Had I taken time to ask the right questions, I could have avoided the detour. I find this to be true especially in matters where emotion is at play, not simply facts. Getting to the root of facts is fairly simple. Getting to the root of feelings, opinions and viewpoints is not so easy.

Have you ever conducted an open-ended customer survey and discovered, to your surprise, that the real reasons why people are interested (or not) in your product or service are totally different than what you assumed were the reasons? I have, and it can be eye opening.

Determining the utility of your product or service from the end-user's viewpoint is, in fact, how you develop your value proposition. You don't determine the value of what you produce, your customers do. Thus, the only way you can create a "value proposition" is to ask your customers: why do you like us? Then repeat what they say to the rest of the world. Don't tell the world what you assume they want to hear about you.

Effective strategy requires fact facing and fact finding. Before acting, a good leader should take the time to ask "Is that so?" as many times as it takes to get to the root of the matter.