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Palmisano's 4 Questions

January 17, 2012

Samuel J. Palmisano, the recently retired chief executive officer of IBM, has four questions that he used to guide IBM through the last decade of substantial change.

They are:

  • Why would someone spend their money with you – so what is unique about you?
  • Why would somebody work for you?
  • Why would society allow you to operate in their defined geography – their country?
  • And why would somebody invest their money with you?

According to a profile in The New York Times (December 31, 2011), it was the pursuit of excellence in each of these dimensions that shaped Palmisano’s successful corporate strategy.

While these questions were formulated to guide a large, multi-national corporation, I think they’re a pretty good roadmap for any type of organization – be it for profit or not-for-profit – or for any type of program – be it CSR or philanthropy or otherwise -- inside a company.

Figuring out what is unique about your mission, business, strategy or program is imperative in order to convince others (customers, investors, clients, donors, patrons or your own company) to spend their money with you rather than with some other company, organization or group.

Likewise, concentrating attention on answering the question of why someone would work for you (other than just needing a job) is essential to attract and retain the best and brightest talent for your organization. As the job climate improves, this will become increasingly significant in the coming year.

And, determining what your organization is doing that is beneficial to society should help support the answers to the first two questions. This might be easier for not-for-profit organizations or CSR programs to answer, but articulating those societal benefits, and measuring whether these benefits are actually being achieved, is increasing valuable for any type of organization or group in today’s highly competitive environment.

As we look to the new year, it’s a good time to ask yourself Palmisano’s four strategic questions. Your answers – or the lack of them – could help inform your work for 2012 and beyond.

Any thoughts? Please share them here.

P.S. A few readers expressed some confusion about my last post entitled “Real Artists Ship.” Apparently, I wasn’t clear where this mantra came from and what it means. As I remember it, this Jobs maxim came about when the release of the first Mac was months overdue. By saying that “real artists ship,” Jobs was trying to say that having an idea and creating something is not enough. One has to complete the work, get it in boxes and out the door where it will have impact on people’s lives. In short, one has to execute on ideas and show results -- not unlike Jack Welsh saying that the ability to “get things done” is one of his five traits of an effective leader. Hope that helps!


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