What if, when you wanted to ask a What If question -- say something like "What if we created a new division that would be responsible for developing, and selling, a new gizmo?" -- there was an answer?
Not, initially, an answer from insiders -- employees with a personal stake in the decision or a board of directors that in many smaller companies is family and friends -- but input from noncompeting peers, entrepreneurs who gather monthly to give honest and mostly informed answers to just such questions?
You might want to check out a peer advisory board. Even though it has been a while since I participated in a meeting, I'd start with peer advisory boards run by Ray Silverstein, founder of PRO, the President's Resource Organization.
Here's how Silverstein's peer boards work:
• There are seven PRO Peer Advisory Boards, four in the Chicago area and three in Arizona.
• Members are noncompeting business owners.
• Membership varies, but eight to ten participants a meeting is ideal. A virtual approach didn't work well; face-to-face meetings seem to generate better conversation.
• Silverstein suggests members read a specific business book before each meeting, but with awareness that not everyone will do so, Silverstein sends "six to 10 pages of crib notes." A discussion based on the book, or notes, opens each meeting.
While the book isn't essential, the book discussion helps get each meeting to the important segments: What members want to discuss about their businesses.
"People bring up their own issues," Silverstein says. Sometimes -- usually, based on my recollection -- those issues are well focused. Depending on what has been discussed in previous meetings, a discussion might start this way: "Jim, last month you said you were going to do some staff restructuring. How did it go?"
Note that the sample question above was not "Did you do it?" but "What were the results?"
"Peer boards are not for everyone," Silverstein warns. "Members have to be willing to listen and learn. If you're a know-it-all, or If you don't take criticism well ..."
What Silverstein calls criticism others might term constructive suggestions. You're meeting with business owner peers who typically have experiences -- and make suggestions from those experiences -- that can help other members overcome inevitable issues.
Accountability matters: If you as a peer board member raise an issue, often in the form of a "What do you think?" question, other members will share thoughts based on their experiences -- and will want to know the outcome.
For members, the benefit is the opportunity to talk with others who have been where you're going -- and are willing to share their thoughts.
The concept couldn't be better: Information and advice from business owners a lot like you and, of course, the opportunity to share your experiences with them.
There are options, so don't rely just on my thoughts. Check out Silverstein's approach at www.propres.com. For others, type "search business peer groups in Chicago area," with the spaces.