Four Questions We Use To Help Improve Our Practice

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Consulting Business, skmurphy

“It requires troublesome work to undertake the alteration of old beliefs.”
John Dewey in “How We Think

We do a lot of initial consultation calls where we walk around an issue or a challenge a startup is facing. The calls typically focus on lead generation, sales process, new product introduction, or practical tips for managing the challenges of bootstrapping a new firm or product. For the last several years we have been sending the following four question survey, sometimes with a fifth question specific to the session, to everyone who took part.


Please take five minutes and help us improve our process

Please reflect on our conversation and take a few minutes to write  a one sentence answer to four questions to help us improve our process:

  1. What was the most useful question or suggestion that you heard?
  2. What was the least useful?
  3. What, if anything, did I fail to do that you expected me to do?
  4. What else can I do to improve my process?

We get better than an 80% response rate and have learned a lot. Many small subtle things that people have been kind enough to suggest we stop doing. And a some significant additions or alterations as well.

I will start with a few simple phrases I have–almost–trained myself to avoid as a result of feedback:

  • “Now don’t take this the wrong way…”
    whatever comes next also needs to be rephrased to reflect the entrepreneur’s perspective not mine.
  • “Normally when an entrepreneur tells me they are selling to small business it means they don’t know their target market.”
    Now I try and probe for more specific attributes and skip the insult. For example: “Small business covers a broad category of firms. Is there a particular type of small business that would benefit the most or would make a decision more rapidly.”
  • “You know what IRS calls a business that does not make a profit? A hobby.”
    Again gratuitously insulting, so I now try to probe more for the plan for break-even operation and see if they have determined what their remaining runway is so that they can find a graceful exit if need be before some very bad outcomes.

One suggestion for improvement a few years ago lead me to rethink some of the ways that I had focused too much on my own time efficiency:

I would  have appreciated your starting our conversation by asking me  to tell our story. That way we could have started from a ‘shared base of understanding’ of what we have tried so far. (Perhaps  you felt you knew enough from the brief I sent you in advance? Or in your experience doing that makes the sessions too long?)

This triggered a fair amount of reflection and led me to write the following answer


This is a fair point: I need to avoid the “take two aspirin and call me in the morning” prescription that does not seem to be rooted in an extraction of symptoms from a case history, a diagnosis or differentials. Probably the two most important aspects in a brief consult are

  1. Why you, why now? what is your evidence of need and why are you qualified to solve this problem. The “Business English” as an outgrowth of global teams I took as a given. It may not explain your lack of traction in China for example but to a first order anyone who wants to engage in global business needs to speak / write English effectively. And your credentials were established in my review of the website.
  2. What have you tried that has worked?  Where is there even a weak signal for success). In your case we uncovered two things that you can build on pretty quickly and spent some time walking around what that might look like  at the next level of scale.

But your question made me realize two of the shortcomings, or at least risks, to asking you to write down “the story so far.” While it is more time efficient for my review and gives you more time to compose your thoughts and revise/reflect on it:

  • it’s not the same as voicing it and having it heard. I can hear the emotion in your voice in a way that is distilled out of the writing.
  • And you are not sure that I have actually read what you send. (I did).

But I had not considered that. I should probably have done a brief recap that established I saw a need for your offering and believed that you had the ability to deliver it and that the challenge appeared to be more in targeting and initial engagement scaling to a relationship  than in determining if there was a need.

Because the need for the service was pretty clear, at least to me, and your team’s background supported your  ability to develop and deliver it I did not dig in the way that I might when someone proposes a novel product or service (particularly when I cannot see a need for it, or I can see a need but I cannot see how their prior experience qualifies them to offer a competitive, much less distinctive, offering). I didn’t have any qualms about your ability to develop and deliver. I was confident that you could organize an approach that would  work once you had a clearer picture of target and triggers.

There is a risk in asking people to recount all the ways that they have failed or all of the good ideas that they have had that have not borne fruit is that it anchors the subsequent conversation in what has not worked and why instead of a theory of the need, your current  hypotheses for how you can add value, and what a successes to date we can build on to continue the market exploration.

But it’s a fair point that entrepreneurs benefit from recounting their journey. My intent was to  offer you  some specific suggestions for how you could refine your message, your target customer criteria, and help you simplify your offering to get some initial traction. But you have to see that as rooted in your specific situation and not some generic checklist of options or canned answers.

Thanks for taking the time to send a detailed response and some suggestions for how I can improve.


We still ask for a written overview in advance so that I can start  with some context. We also believe it helps a team prepare correlate their experiences and come to a rough consensus on at least what the key challenges or constraints are.  But we try keep learning and make new mistakes.

“Good communication is as stimulating as black coffee, and just as hard to sleep after.”
Anne Morrow Lindbergh


Update Mon-Feb-17 Jeremy Heap (@JeremyHeap) tweeted a link to the article with a nice one line summary

Four Questions We Use To Help Improve Our Practice –
In short learn from every engagement with a client or customer

Update July 19, 2014: We now ask
3. What changes, if any, have you made in your plans for the next three months as a result of our conversation?

This has proven to be a better indicator of what questions and suggestions were useful.

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