Capability Insights Consulting



The Lost Art of Why

Posted on July 3, 2010 at 5:00 PM

Has anyone else noticed that asking “why” has become a problem in our corporate/organizational world?


The parents amongst us remember well the phase our children went through when they asked why constantly. Sure, it could be a bit annoying at times but it also marked that very special time when we knew they were trying to understand how their world worked, what the rules were and where their boundaries were. In short they were learning. Many of their “why” questions forced us to rethink what we take for granted. I know some of those “why” questions left me wondering “why” as well.


As business has moved faster and as the economy has tightened, far too often those that ask the “why” of something are seen as nay-sayers or as people getting in the way of getting things done. I see it as a symptom of the lack of thinking happening in too many organizations. Taking the time to think things through is seen as “so yesterday”. The mantra seems to be “do, do and redo”.


I get it – agility is good, doing something is often better than doing nothing. Though I take issue with the idea that thinking about something, asking “why”, and digging for root causes is doing nothing!


Doing can be a way of thinking if we keep “why” in our vocabulary and treat our early doings as learnings and evolution. But even then there needs to be the freedom to ask why:

  • Why did we do it that way before?
  • Why isn’t it working now?
  • Why do we think this way will be better?
  • Why did our first iteration not get us where we need to be?

I now have to coach people to not ask “why” directly but rather to rephrase to “can you help me understand”, “what about this is concerning”, etc. When did we become such a defensive culture? We think of the business world as logical and rational, as strong and assured – yet nowhere is the simple question of “why” so frowned upon. No where else does it create the same level of defensiveness. Why?


For sure, those asking why must be respectful of the ideas and needs of others. “Why” should never, ever be an excuse for a personal attack. Asking why should always be about gaining understanding, about wanting to make things better, about wanting to surface any issues that could get in the way of implementation success.


I challenge all of us to get better at asking why and at accepting “why” questions. Why questions are not about tearing down proposals or plans, they are about gaining understanding and clarity; about exploring the edges of ideas or the core of how things have always been.


I challenge all of us to use “why” questions to uncover inefficiencies, easily avoidable risks, learn how others see a situation and to generally improve the success of our projects and businesses.


Hey, why not?!




Categories: communication, leadership, business processes

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Reply Magaly Azevedo
11:38 PM on July 5, 2010 
Hi Brenda,
I remember a course we attended at London Life and the instructor told us to avoid the "direct" why. She suggested that instead we should phrase the question like "What would you do if you have this information/feature available to you?" or "what would it prevent you from doing/achieving if you don't have this information/feature", "how would it impact your job?" and so on... I should find the tips and hints to share here and give the proper credit to the instructor. I have used this approach and I do find that people are more comfortable with this type of questions than the direct "WHY"

Reply Brenda Kerton
5:17 PM on July 6, 2010 
Hi Magaly! Yes there are many good ways of asking the questions for sure.

But I worry that in our zeal not to insult or make people uncomfortable we may forget that no matter how couched, this is about "why". The word "why" is not a negative word and should be a very powerful and empowering word. That is what we are in danger of loosing.

Reply Trish Lee
3:35 PM on July 7, 2010