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How are you doing?

When people ask us how we're doing, we say fine. That's OK most of the time, but sometimes, it's a good idea to take a good look in the mirror. Companies do it when they run into roadblocks; people need to do it too.

I've got a question for you: How are you doing? Sure, of course you're fine. Here's a follow up: How do you know you're doing fine? Tougher question, huh?

What's that, you have a question for me? Why am I asking these inane questions?

Because, when people ask us how we're doing, we respond automatically. I'm fine, we're fine, everything's fine. After all, if we engaged everyone in a rant about the gory truth, nothing would ever get done.

But it doesn't stop there. We don't even engage ourselves in a dialogue about the gory truth, and for much the same reason. We're too busy "living."

The truth is that seemingly simple questions can actually be pretty loaded, so loaded that we'd sometimes rather not know the answer. We have all these sayings about leaving well enough alone. Why upset the apple cart? Why open a can of worms? Don't fix it if it isn't broken.

Most of the time, those sayings are all well and good. But sometimes, especially when things aren't going so well, it's actually a good idea to engage ourselves in a dialogue about how well we're doing.

That holds true for your personal life and your career. It even holds true for corporations.

In strategic planning and most other strategic processes, we begin with an audit of the company's situation. We meet with executives, key employees, customers, and analysts to get an internal and external perspective. We collate that into what we hope is an objective snapshot of the company's competitive position.

We further break that down into what's called a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis. With that and some other tools in hand, we can then plot a new course for the company or modify its existing course. The goal, of course, is to improve the company's performance, going forward.

Years ago, employers began implementing 360 performance reviews, where managers get feedback, not just from their immediate manager, but also from employees, peers, and other managers. The concept is to give managers objective feedback on their performance to help improve their management capability.

This kind of thing works for people, too.

But you have to get some time away from work, gadgets and all the distractions and get some perspective. If you can't do it yourself, it sometimes helps to ask friends and loved ones some questions and be willing to truly listen to what they say. Don't get me wrong; what they say isn't necessarily going to solve all your problems. But it will get you to think and feel. That's the key. That's when you find out how you're really doing.

You know the expression "necessity is the mother of invention?" Well, when people are stressed and forced to seek answers, especially within themselves, that's when they do some of their best thinking. That's when they come up with new ideas and new directions.

Look, when everything's fine, Microsoft doesn't have to acquire Yahoo and Yahoo doesn't have to turn itself around. Apple doesn't have to bring back Steve Jobs to reignite the company. IBM doesn't have to hire Lou Gerstner to reposition Big Blue into a service company. Had these companies never looked within themselves, they never would have realized that something needed to change.

It's no different with people. Think about that the next time somebody asks you how you're doing.