When I taught seminarians and graduate students and top business executives, I would always focus on these three questions: What? When? Why?
“What?” was usually “What’s the problem?” They would come to me stressed out and confused, rattling off reams of events and quotes, and juggling them all in the air like bowling pins. The seminarians wanted to know what God had to do with evil. Grad students were more concerned with future jobs, and my business executives had disgruntled employees.
I made them define the problem. I asked them to put aside all the extraneous clutter that complicates their problems and plunge down to the root cause. Quite often when they wrote down a simple sentence with the words “The problem is ...”, their stress level diminished and we could begin to solve it. Most of us crowd our minds with so many objections and variations and possibilities that we can’t focus on the core problem that causes all the others.
The second “What” is really the Mission statement of all successful companies. I would work with them to take the time to articulate what kind of business they were in. I urged all of my students, as well, to write down this statement: “I am in the business to ...” If they couldn’t figure this out, they’d be like a group of OB/GYN physicians who told me they were not in the business of delivering healthy babies — they were in the business of making money. Big difference. I told them I would never send them my pregnant daughter.
“When” was the question I had to ask my procrastinators. These people would come up with exciting goals and strategies. They could talk for hours about projects and events they were going to produce, and they believed it. But when I’d ask for dates, I got silence.
I facilitate a lot of strategic planning seminars for groups in Georgia and this is always the kicker. We can generate lists of concrete goals and measurable strategies for each one, but when we try to set a date and time for execution — there’s always great hesitation.
Putting down a date shouldn’t make us hesitate. We can always change it later on if conditions change, but if we don’t set a date at all, we just won’t do it.
“Why” is the biggest and most frightening question of all. “Why am I doing this? Why do I believe this? Why am I here? Why? Why? Why?” This is the question that made Aristotle and Plato famous. It’s the question that has started wars and ended them, too. It’s the question all of us ask before we get married. It’s the question that has made us what we are today.
I always ask my top executives: “Why do you have this policy?” If the answer was “Because we’ve always had it,” they saw a frown on my face and knew a discussion was coming. I have found that most companies and families and churches have the same tendency: “What worked in the past works just as well today.” Well, sometimes it does, but how about slavery and segregation and immigration? How are they working today?
But the most controversial “why” I find myself embroiled in lately is “Why must the Bible be read literally?” My critics scream that I’m a heretic and a flaming liberal, but they never answer the question. They say that the Bible is inspired by God. I agree with that, but why is inspiration limited to literalism? Why can’t God inspire metaphor and myth? In fact, why can’t God inspire men who reject that inspiration like I Tim. 2:11?
However, now that I’m at the end of my life, I have to ask myself these same three questions:
“What” kind of business am I in? And the answer is: I am, and always have been, in the business of helping other people (and myself) think by constantly asking embarrassing questions — questions polite people never ask. And I intend to stay in this business.
“When” am I going to find my answers? I schedule every day to learn at least one answer and I plan to continue to do that until I run out of questions.
“Why” do I do this erratic thing when it causes so much controversy on the pages of this newspaper? And the answer is: because I really love it.
Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is www.billcummings.org.