Do you remember when you were a child, and your parents would ask you to do something and you would ask “Why?” Your parent would answer, and you would ask “Why?” again. Very patient parents would answer as many “why”s as they could before their energetic and persistent child eventually wore them down and the final answer was “Just because!” or “Because I said so!” Asking why became associated with being pesky. Or was it just me?
Fast forward a few years to life as an adult. You are sitting in the boardroom and someone mentions a term you are not familiar with, or announces a new strategy that does not make sense to you. How often to you speak up and ask “what does that mean?” or “why this strategy?” Of course, there are some people who do, and they are sometimes seen as troublemakers or time wasters. Over the years, we learn that asking “why” disrupts the delicate balance. If you don’t know something, find it out in your own time, don’t waste other peoples’ time.
Why do we stop asking Why?
I believe, over time, we lose our child-like wonder of the world. We come to believe that what we don’t know we should know, and assume the reason “why” has already been agreed AND there is a great reason for it. Our parents (bless them) are probably partly to blame – in their efforts to find a little peace, the discourage our curiosity. They (and others) teach us that the world has boundaries, so stay within them. We then grow up to build those boundaries even higher, and before we know it, our wonder and amazement of what else is possible is gone.
Of course, some boundaries are there to keep us safe. Why do we not touch the hot plate? Because it is hot and it will burn and hurt us! There are many factors that contribute to doing things like putting on sunscreen, wearing gloves, taking your umbrella out with you. Somewhere along the line, we confuse those genuine needs for safety with the not so genuine needs. Some great questions to ask now could be:
- Why do I have to go to university?
- Why do I have to get a full time job?
- Why do I have to learn this way?
The world is changing. Previous paradigms that were held true are no longer true. Our need to ask “Why” has always been there, and is now greater than ever.
How to start asking Why again
We are conditioned not to ask, so learning how to ask Why again means changing our conditioning. Changing our behaviour. I mentioned before that the people who speak up can be seen as wasting time or disruptive. It’s time to be disruptive but in an a way that serves everyone. And doesn’t waste time. Firstly, recognise a genuine need to ask Why – what is it you don’t know? Why do you need to ask why? (see what I did there?) Next, think how could I ask this in a way that serves the room. “Why?” can be confronting, and often leads to people being defensive or shutting down. Other ways to ask could include:
- For what purpose?
- What will that give us?
- What does that mean for us?
- What is this an example of?
Any question that can help align to a common purpose. Finally, when the question is answered, acknowledge it. The person answering it has no doubt stepped out of their comfort zone and thought about something in a way they have not thought before. Make sure they know you appreciate it.
How often do you question the purpose of something you don’t understand? How might asking Why more help you get better results? Here is why I wrote The Agile Project Manager.