Michael Feuer: Close counts in more than horseshoes, hand grenades and slow dancing

Maybe you’ve seen the popular AT&T television commercials promoting the theme, “It’s not complicated,” for high-speed Internet services. In these vignettes, a moderator sits at a child’s table in a playroom with some of the cutest kids on the planet and poses an innocent question, such as, “How high is up?” And then, out of the mouth of babes, come the humorous and insightful morsels of an answer that are smack on target.

Too many times in business and government, “Mountains are made out of molehills.” Ask a simple question and frequently we get an obscure answer that simply raises more questions. The problem is most people either over-think the issue, are too concerned about responding without in-depth analysis, or fear they might appear shallow by speaking the obvious.


Clinton’s folly

Equally unproductive is that a simple question can too frequently evoke the most bizarre and meaningless answer. At the top of my list is the now infamous question that contains the verb “is” in a sentence that was posed to an otherwise articulate, silver-tongued politician about a touchy subject. His response was, “It all depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” This should have made him consider entering a monastery and taking a vow of silence, among other things.

I’ve often found that in brainstorming and kicking around ideas with others the first comment ultimately proves to be the best and most meaningful answer. It’s been said that close only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades and slow dancing. I would add to this list that a speedy answer also, many times, gets the job done.

Certainly an off-the-top-of-the-head response might not be 100 percent correct, but in most situations 70 percent or so right is much better than the completely unequivocal, unabridged data points that might take a day or two, maybe even longer, to obtain. One does, however, need to weigh the ramifications of not being able to provide complete commentary, but typically zero variance is meaningful only in reading brain X-rays or perhaps calculating coordinates for a drone strike.

As a leader, you must communicate parameters for quick responses and assert a standing caveat that if the responder later determines that more information came to mind or was discovered, he or she must provide that amplification to those involved.


Go out on a limb

You must also create an environment that fosters team members to venture further out on the proverbial limb in order to keep a discussion moving forward. Most times when people are reluctant to give it their best shot, it’s your fault because you’ve not communicated the value of, and your appreciation for, the practicality of providing relevant information that serves the purpose at hand. When a particular team member or members consistently hesitate in responding extemporaneously, it’s time for you to reset the ground rules that will give them the comfort they need to become effective contributors and communicators.

Analysis paralysis can become the scourge of any organization, as it breeds indecisiveness, and hampers innovation and quick solutions to the most common problems and opportunities. For good or bad, success today is often measured in hours, days or weeks, instead of months and years, based on speed to market.  In many respects, this is due to living and working in the digital age where immediate gratification is expected.

It’s not complicated, and simpler and faster is usually better. Thanks, Ma Bell, for the entertaining reminder.


Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. “The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, published by John Wiley & Sons, is now available. Reach him with comments at [email protected].