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Why Ask Why?

If you have children or spend time around them, you probably hear one question all the time. Why? Why do I have to go to school? Why should I clean my room? Why can’t I watch TV? It’s easy to deflect these questions with a “because I said so,” but that will likely lead to frustration and more questions, and it won't achieve the outcome you’re looking for. Children have an innate curiosity to understand why things are the way they are. It’s no different in the professional world. Now, I’m in no way likening experienced, savvy, professional adults to preschoolers, but whether you’re young or old, most people have a desire to understand the circumstances of what’s happening around them.

That’s why I’ve always believed the most important question is “why?” For leaders, being able to answer "why" effectively can go a long way in building support from your teams and getting things done.

Why builds trust - It’s not enough to tell your team that they need to stop working on an important project and shift priorities to support a brand new initiative overnight. Telling people to do anything without explaining why is not going to motivate them. Instead, it will likely make them feel like order takers and resentful that they’re being kept in the dark about decisions. However, explaining why - perhaps that the company needs to take a hard look at its financial situation and focus on core priorities to make the organization more profitable - will provide the context that teams need in order to work together for the good of the larger group. They'll also be more likely to respect you as a leader who is transparent and who trusts them in taking the right actions.

Why leads to solutions - I worked at Toyota for many years and always respected the company’s problem-solving culture. No matter what the job, we were always encouraged to ask “why” five times when we encountered a problem. The premise is that by asking why five times, you’ll ultimately get to the root cause of the issue and have a better understanding of what you need to solve for. Think of it this way:

There’s heavy traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge and cars are not moving.

Why? Because the exit getting off the bridge is backed up.

Why? Because there’s an accident at the end of the ramp.

Why? Because a car drove into oncoming traffic.

Why? Because the driver missed the traffic light at the end of the ramp.

Why? Because it was hidden behind a large tree branch.

Ta-da! Removing the branch will make the traffic light visible and the ramp safer, ultimately improving the traffic flow. No need to spend many years and millions of dollars building out another lane on the bridge. Obviously this is a very simplified example, but you get the point.

Why tells a story - For communicators, asking "why" helps tell a compelling story. I worked for an organization where there were many stressful demands on a daily basis, where it was often difficult to get things done due to bureaucracy and red tape. Yet so many of the employees had been working there for 20, 30, some even 40 or more years! When I asked some of them why they stayed so long if there was so much frustration, the answers I received all had to do with the camaraderie they experienced on the job, the kindness and selflessness of their co-workers, the commitment they had and pride they felt in working to provide an essential public service to millions of people in one of the world’s largest cities. It’s those rich stories that help craft a compelling narrative and shape a positive image about culture and opportunity, yet you wouldn't know it unless you asked “why.”

So the next time you’re faced with a problem you need to solve, a message you want to convey, or support you want to build, channel your inner child and ask “why.”

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