The Power of “WHY?”
“Why?” is really the core.
The question can be asked as a follow-up to any answer, and be perfectly valid. It will, at times, raise the ire of those being asked, but it remains valid nonetheless.
What makes this true? It’s the drill-down power of “Why”, the ability it has to always go to the next level. “Why” is the tool we need to get to the root of a matter, and give us reason to move.
Bugging my boss
I used to drive my boss insane with the question. He would call me into his office to discuss how we should approach a project, and I would start out by asking “Why are we doing this?”
The first time was great. He stared at me as if I’d grown a second head, and said “What do you mean?”
I said “Why are we doing this? What’s the purpose of it? I don’t mean to imply that it has no purpose, I simply want to fully understand that purpose so that we can have a better chance of a successful outcome.”
“Well, the president of the company said that he wanted this”
“Okay, why does he want it?”
“Other companies have done this before.”
“So, is our goal to have a thing that other companies have? That seems kind of counter-productive. Is there a better reason for doing this? Specifically, what do we hope will result in this effort?”
The reason this drove him crazy is because it slowed him down and made him think. That’s also the reason he called me into his office so often to talk about projects. He knew I’d start the drill-down and help him get to a better starting place, giving us a better chance of a successful result. He and I both had big signs printed and hung in our offices that simply said “ASK WHY?”
How it works
Asking “Why” clarifies goals, leading to decisive actions. For example, when considering the creation of an E-Learning module, asking “why are we doing this in the first place?” gets to the heart of the motive behind it. Is this being implemented in order to comply with regulatory requirements? Is this just to “check the box” on something? If so (and that’s sometimes just a reality), is there an off-the-shelf solution that would be cheaper and easier to implement?
On the other hand, if the goal is to really offer training, and change the behaviour of people, what, specifically, is the desired result? David Allen, of Getting Things Done fame, puts it this way: “What does a wildly successful outcome look like?” This may take a bit of time to fully articulate, and it really should be written down, reviewed and refined. Once it’s been done though, you now have a clear target to shoot for. Otherwise, you might get busy on the module, but there’s a really good chance that you’ll miss the mark of success. It’s kind of like shooting an arrow without knowing what your target is. First, clearly identify your target, then take aim and fire.
Asking “why” is a bit like peeling an onion. It’s always good to take off the top layer anyway, in order to get to the juicy, useable part of the onion. After that, you may find it advisable to peel of another layer or two to get the best out of it. Likewise, peeling back the layers of any topic or project gives us the chance to inspect it more closely and “get to the good stuff”.
It might go a bit like this:
“We need an E-Learning module on safety”
“Because there are too many reports of workplace injuries”
“Well, the warehouse manager says there are a lot of injuries around the new machine”
“Did he say why that is so?”
“He did complain about the way the loader made things awkward for his people…”
Now, you know specifically what the issue is, and can approach it accordingly. My next question would be whether it’s a safety issue, or an issue with a part of the machine that should be fixed. If the machine’s loader is poorly made, maybe it just need repaired, altered or replaced.
In any case, you know that a general safety module including forklift operating and ladder use won’t cut it. You need something more.
This is a bit of a simplification, but you can see the idea, and the power of peeling back the layers before jumping into development.
Please leave a comment as to how you’ve seen this technique work, or where it should have been used, and what happened because it wasn’t. I can’t wait to hear your stories!