The Power of Asking Why?

It’s a question you’ve no doubt heard every 5 year old ask over and over again:

Clean your room. “Why?” Because I said so. “Why?” Because I’m the parent. “Why?”

And although by now you hopefully know the reasons to the above 3 questions without asking “Why?”, it’s ironic that something we attribute to young children is a major contributor to why we as adults never really find what we want, or are supposed, to do.

So, I ask you:

Why are you at your current job?
Why are you with the person you’re with?
Why are your hobbies what they are, or why don’t you have hobbies?
Why are you always busy, or why do you have too much time on your hands?

Write a list of things you are unhappy with in your life and write why you are unhappy with them. Then write a list of the positives and do the same. You can’t make the changes you need in your life if you don’t know what they are or why you need them.

A few years back I was purchasing a cell phone. As the customer service rep was inserting the SIM card, I made a comment about an advertisement hanging in the store and he gave me a blank stare. When I motioned towards the wall he said “Oh, that’s been there for years. I don’t even notice it anymore”. He had gotten so used to seeing it that his brain had just shut it out. Not noticing a poster is no big deal, but unfortunately we do this on a much larger scale every day.

Too often we stumble head first into things & they become part of our routine for no reason other than familiarity.

Sometimes we never should’ve been doing them in the first place. Other times they were good for a certain time period but are no longer effective with our current lives. Things are always changing, and those who thrive are those who adapt. Those who take a second to analyze themselves, what they need, what they don’t, dropping the unnecessary and expanding upon what would be beneficial to them.

I boxed for a few years. Because of my work schedule, I continually had to start and stop my training. I learned how to move my body to throw and defend against different punches. “If your opponent throws a jab, do this. If he throws a hook, do that.” No questions asked, I did what they said, and after drilling the same body motions into my head for long enough I’d get better at them. But, life happens, and if I was inactive in the ring for a couple months, I’d come back rusty and have to drill these same exercises until it eventually felt natural again. Then, one day I met a trainer who made it a point to tell me WHY I was moving my body in this exact way, how it was setting me up for further punches, or it was positioning myself to defend better, and it all clicked. I can go into a gym now despite years off and react to most situations in the ring immediately because I’m not just rudimentarily jumping around throwing punches. I know why I am doing exactly what I’m doing.

Now I’m not saying a routine is a bad thing. It can be a very effective way to progress yourself forward and accomplish your goals. The problem with a routine comes not in the structure, but in you becoming stagnant in it and not questioning it’s continued effectiveness and relevance to your current situation. We get so wrapped up in what’s going on around us that we don’t pay attention to ourselves anymore. We begin life doing everything instinctively and naturally, but as we grow pressures around us force us into these patterns because they become easy. Constant thinking takes work, and let’s face it, we’re always looking for ways to simplify our lives, not make them more complicated.

Numerous studies have been done on changes in behavior as we grow older. A great example is the way we breathe.

Take as deep a breath as you can. Your chest probably puffs out, your shoulders go back & you can physically hear yourself take in the breath. This is incorrect, and is a direct result of years of stress on your body. As babies we (correctly) use “diaphragmatic breathing”, which is the act of breathing into the bottom portion of our lungs, thus using the entire lung set. This is the correct way, and we do it because as babies we don’t even think about. We haven’t picked up any bad habits yet. This other, more shallow, way of breathing that most adults (save a few, such as trained singers) do brings less air into the body and is far less effective as only the upper portion of the lungs are utilized.

So how many things in your life are you doing “just because”, and how are they affecting it? If someone asks you why you are living like you are, would you be able to deliver a quick, confident & definite response?

I know you are at your job because it makes money, but why not another job? And if it pays more than you can make at another job then why not go to school to get a better one? If school’s too expensive, why not save for it? Why do you want to lose weight? Why do you think people will like you better if you’re thinner? Why do you want people to like you?

Take 10 minutes, sit down, and ask yourself why you are doing everything you’re doing. Usually the first 4 or 5 responses are defensive and not indicative of how you really feel. It’s amazing where your “Why?”s will lead you once you get to the 6th or 7th one. Keep asking why and you will eventually get to the root of the reasoning for your actions.

Bring Your Inner Toddler to Work: The Five Whys

There is something that most toddlers do that is a good business practice. They ask “Why?”. At a certain stage they ask why to just about everything.

“Johnny put a coat on.” says Mom.

“Why?” ask Johnny.

“Because it is cold outside.” Mom replies.

“Why is it cold outside?” queries little Johnny.

And so it goes for the parents of a toddler. This is probably preferable to the stage where they say “NO!” to everything. Yet I can see where this gets tiring. Unless Mom is a meteorologist she is going to run out of answers about what causes the weather. All little Johnny wants is to get to the root cause of the need for a coat. He may view the coat as a good thing or he may view the coat as an inconvenience, but he really wants to understand the reasoning behind the need to wear that coat.

It seems that no matter how patient our parents were with us during our ‘Why’ phase we often lose that sense of curiosity. That sense of curiosity can really help guide us. What I am referring to here is a tool referred to as ‘The Five Whys’. Consider using ‘The Five Whys’ for root cause analysis and also to help really understand the reason behind your project. Let’s take a quick look at both uses.

Root cause analysis. You and the team know there is a problem, yet the problem could stem from multiple issues. This is a perfect time to start with what you know and work backward to the root cause.

We delivered product to our customer on the due date and we did not go over budget, yet they will not hire us again. WHY won’t they hire us again?
The product we delivered did not meet their expectations. WHY didn’t the product meet their expectations?
The customer states that functionality is missing. WHY does the customer state functionality is missing?
The customer has a requirements list that does not match the list we used. WHY does the customer have a requirements list that differs from ours?
Our initial project manager left the company and there was no clean transition to the new project manager. The new project manager thought he had the right documentation. WHY did a change in project manager lead us to use the wrong version of a document?

I am going to stop here because I know you can see how to use this tool. You can also see that sometimes it will take more than five whys and sometimes it will take fewer than five whys. It is important to keep going until you find the true reasons behind the problem you are analyzing. Of course you may find more than one actionable reason. In the example above you are probably tempted to find out why we do not have good configuration management or version control on our documents AND you may also want to know why the new project manager did not do some type of comparison or audit or review with the client to make sure that everything was in order AND you might wonder why this issue did not surface until the product was delivered.

As mentioned above another use for ‘The Five Whys’ is to help understand the purpose for your project. If you really know why you are leading your team to meet a specific goal, you can set a vision and point to that vision to help keep everybody walking the same path. As with root cause analysis (and this really is another type of root cause analysis); you start with the end and you use your why questions to work backward.

We have committed to expediting this project for our new business partner.
WHY are we expediting this project for our new business partner?
Our business partner came to us with an emergency and if we cannot expedite delivery for them they are going to lose one of their critical contracts.
WHY did they have an emergency which required us to expedite?
Our competitor was providing this service to them and did not meet the deadline.

Now I am going to stop here. You see where this might lead. This might be an opportunity for your company to acquire business that had been going to one of your competitors, which brings more revenue and more work to your organization.

You probably already have team members who look at you and say, “And why are we doing this work for this customer right now?” That is a good thing; they can help you get started. Don’t discourage the why questions. You personally do not have to answer every why. This is a team effort. You can make the why questions fun and part of your team culture. Invite your team to act like kids and question why, why, why, why, WHY?