Posted February 15, 2011

How much is "a lot"?

By Quint Studer

The words "a lot" are often used to describe a perceived need or demand. When you hear them it's time to dig deeper. Without proper diagnosis the words can lead to unnecessary expense and unwarranted actions.

I have seen organizations take action that isn't needed, overrespond to situations, and waste time and money due to hearing the words "a lot." You might even create a new product or service because "a lot" of people requested it. I am guilty of this myself.

In my work I approved an educational program at a hospital because we had gotten "a lot" of requests. You guessed it: The time and expense to produce this requested program were far more than what was warranted by the actual number of requests. (Have you ever seen the film This Is Spinal Tap? Remember the scenes when the heavy metal band was on its downhill slide and was forced to play to ever-dwindling crowds? That's what it felt like when four attendees showed up for the program!)

Other examples can include statements like A lot of people are unhappy…We've had a lot of complaints…There have been a lot of calls…This service or product has gotten a lot of compliments.

"A lot" is a vague phrase. When you ask what it actually means, I have found the answer can range from two people to hundreds of people. I am not suggesting that you ignore the words "a lot." Nor am I saying that at times an action may not make sense if it impacts only one or a few individuals. The point is to ask "how many?" when you hear these words.

By asking for specifics you will be better able to decide what actions, if any, are warranted. It is part of what I call "diagnose before you treat."

A good way to think about this leadership practice is to think about the steps taken in patient care. When a patient says they are in "a lot" of pain, the caregiver does their best to get the patient to be as descriptive and specific as possible. The patient's answer determines what comes next.

Taking time to ask for specifics has been very helpful to me on my continued leadership journey. I hope it will be helpful for you as well.

Thank you.


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