Growing up, I was taught that the essential questions to understand a situation were “who?”, “what?”, “where?”, “when?”, “why?” and “how?” Of all of them, I would argue that the most important one is “why?”
The challenge is that, in reality, it is rarely the one we start with, nor is it often the one we finish with. In many situations, it doesn’t come up at all. If it does, there is a real risk that it is dealt with at a superficial level and subsequently ignored.
When we think about changes that we initiate, projects that we take on or improvements that we make, we quickly jump to “what.” Sometimes we focus on problems. More often, we default directly to defining a solution. If we are honest, though, we don’t take the time to really ask why the solution is important to implement. Or even why the problem is a problem. Or why the problem actually needs solving.
Why is an important but difficult question. It’s the question that five year old kids drive us mad with, once they learn to ask it. Not content with the initial answer to “Why is the sky blue?” they insistently follow up with “But why?” “But why?” “But why?” Our discomfort with this line of questioning (apart from its hammering repetitiveness) is that it ultimately leads to a final, fateful, fearful answer of “I don’t know.” And that’s when things get really interesting.
Ironically, the five-year-old has quite accidentally stumbled on a masterful technique of inquiry. It combines relentless curiosity with an inherent unwillingness to not take things at face value. It isn’t satisfied with the first, easy answer. It wants the subsequent, more difficult answer. And the one after that. And the one after that. It wants to get at the truth. And that, perhaps, is why we find the question so deeply uncomfortable. We might not be sure of the truth. We might not know how to find the truth. We might not be confident that we want to find out the truth. Or we might—as the movie line goes—be uncertain about whether we can handle the truth.
When we are comfortable with this line of inquiry, though, or at the very least willing to explore where it leads, fascinating things can happen. We make new discoveries. We develop new insights. We open up unexpected and potentially exciting opportunities. We expand our horizons.
I was reminded of this on a recent project. A customer wanted to initiate a project to develop a new facility. On the face of it, the project was entirely logical and reasonable. It aligned with their strategic principles, it seemed to make good business sense, it would pay itself off in a manageable period, and there was strong executive support for doing the project. Approval should have been a theoretical slam dunk.
The only reason that the customer took the time to step back and look at the opportunity in more detail was that they were trying to change their decision making process. Rather than making a gut-level intuitive call on how to move forward, they were trying to do the analysis and research necessary to know that it was a good decision. They wanted to build a business case to validate the opportunity and confirm it made good sense, and that the analysis supported their desired approach and delivered the outcomes that they wanted. That’s where I came in.
I came in to our first meeting having reviewed the background information they had provided me with, and identified all of the questions that I had. There were a lot of them. Any time there was an assertion or an assumption or an expectation, I asked a question that tested its meaning.
We worked through all of my questions over a period of about four hours. By the end of meeting, we knew a couple of things. First, we knew that the project that the organization thought it should do was very possibly not the project that it should do. It was still a potential alternative, but it was an expensive potential alternative. Moreover, it was an alternative that simply moved ownership of the risks the organization faced, without doing anything to really address the problems that created the risks in the first place.
The second thing that came out of the meeting was that there were a number of other options that could produce better outcomes. They were outcomes that actually addressed the risks and got the organization closer to their goals. Even better, each of those options would cost less than the original project. Most interesting for me was that all of the options that emerged were viable, and we wouldn’t know the best answer until we had done the analysis.
A business case is a decision making tool to evaluate options around an investment. It helps you to assess alternatives, and understand the costs and consequences of each choice. To know the best answer, however, you need to understand why you are trying to make an investment in the first place. You need to know why one option might be more attractive than another. You need to be clear about why proceeding might be positive, and why it might be undesirable. The tools of business cases will drive the analysis, but the analysis is only meaningful if you know why the decision is important, and what a good decision actually looks like.
How you get to knowing what a good decision looks like requires asking questions. It requires being able to be entirely clear about what is important to you. It involves knowing what makes one alternative better or worse than another alternative. It involves being able to the fundamental question, “Why is doing this important to us?”
What the five-year-old interrogator has stumbled on by accident is a very useful technique to getting to this answer. I generally describe it as “Getting to the highest order of ‘why?’” In its simplest terms, it’s about following up every response with another question of “why?” In practical terms, it’s about getting to the essential underlying truth of what really matters, by challenging the conventional answers that we usually take at face value.
Why do we want to make this investment? “It will improve efficiency.” Why do you need to be more efficient? “Because we benchmark lower than our competition.” Why are your benchmarks lower? “Because we invest more in customer service than they do.” Why do you invest more in customer service? “The better we take care of our customers, the more business they do with us, and the more business that we attract.”
This is a fictional example. But it makes a point. In four questions, it highlights some truths about how this particular organization works and what it values that are different from its industry. Those differences quickly call into question why you would then take on a project designed to make you look more like your industry. On the surface, the initial project may look justifiable and reasonable. Few would question the motive of ‘efficiency’ as a reasonable driver, unless they ask the more pertinent question, “Does this threaten our ability to maintain customer service and enhance satisfaction?” The answer to that question might get you to a very different result.
We don’t often challenge they why of things. Sometimes it feels easier not to. And sometimes we are actively discouraged from doing so. But there is an inherent challenge in taking things at face value. In project management, for example, project initiation is typically driven by a declared objective for the team to deliver. But it’s the shaping of that objective in the first place that is so critical, and that determines whether the results of the project will succeed or fail.
Asking “why” can feel like a challenge. But it’s an important and essential challenge, and one that we shouldn’t shy away from. The clearer we can be about why we are doing something, the more confident we can be in the choices we make about it. The answer to why builds clarity and commitment. It motivates and inspires. It demonstrates certainty and confidence. Most importantly, it keeps us focused on what is actually most important. And that’s a very good thing indeed.