The Right Question

The first step in strategic decision-making is to focus on the right task.

2 min readDec 3, 2021

Early in my career I was lucky to have clients who taught me a lot. Here’s a recollection of one lesson.

It was 1998 or so, and my firm was the agency of record for Wegmans Food Markets internet work. We were working on a system for online ordering and curbside pickup. Even back then, the internet part was easy: We could put a catalog of material online, and we could easily create a shopping cart system that allowed people to collect and place online orders. The hard part was fulfilling the orders at the store.

A major problem was out-of-stock substitutions: if someone ordered Ragu, but the store was out of Ragu, how would we ask them what they preferred as a replacement? How would we communicate with them about whether they wanted to remove that item from their order, take a rain check, or pick a substitute? It was a vexing issue, and we couldn't come up with a reasonable solution.

We called a huge meeting with all of the major department heads at Wegmans. These were big deal people, with busy, big deal jobs. Danny Wegman, owner and CEO of this multi-billion dollar operation, attended the meeting too.

We were about an hour and 15 minutes into the discussion, but making meager progress. We floated the idea of automatic substitutions. (“Nope, people are brand loyal.”) We talked about providing store credit for anything that was missing. (“You can’t cook a store credit for dinner!”). We talked about a network of vans, running out of stock products between stores. Things were getting convoluted.

Remember, it was 1998: email and website messages were the only way to communicate. There were no apps, no smartphones, and TXT wasn’t even a thing back then. We knew that near-time communication with the customer could solve the problem, but that just wasn’t an option at the time.

The conversation proceeded with no real path forward. Danny, who had spent the meeting silently listening to his top managers, finally chimed in: “how about we just don't run out of stuff?”

He scanned the room for a response, but most of us didn’t quite understand what he said. Someone asked him to repeat himself.

Danny elaborated. “We seem to be struggling with what to do when we run out of an item at the store, right?” Nods all around. “And this creates lots of complexity for both us and for the customer, correct?” Nods again.

“Well then how do we ensure we don’t run out of things? That’s the problem we should be solving.”