“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” – Voltaire
In school we are taught the concept of the ‘5 W’s’ , ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, when’, and ‘why’. In theory these questions should be sufficient to collect the information you need to explain whatever you’re investigating to others.
The problem with this concept is that it groups four very straightforward questions ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’, with one very subjective and elusive question; ‘why?’. ‘Why’ is an incredibly powerful question because it forces us to evaluate the purpose or cause of something. For example, why are you reading this article? Chances are there is a convenient answer that could be used (‘I saw the link on facebook’), but in reality there are many answers required if we are looking for understanding.
The power of the question of ‘why’ isn’t a novel idea. It’s reflected in the lean manufacturing concept of 5 why’s , as well as in the NLP concept of ‘chunking up’. We can both narrow the domain of our questions to a specific path (‘Why did you choose to click on the link in facebook?’), or leave it in it’s solitary form and follow a path so broad it is bound to lead to philosophy (‘Why?’). It is this second form which most 3 year olds learn to master, and it’s startling how quickly their application of it can lead us to the limits of our own knowledge or understanding.
If we want to become efficient as an individual or as an organization it is important that we understand the reasons we do things. The lack of this discipline is obvious in many organizations where ineffective practices are retained, only because that’s how things have always been done. If you’re building an iPhone app for your product, why? Instagram built a successful social network without building a corresponding web app. That never would have been possible if they had built a website just like every other social networking site because ‘that’s what you do’.
This isn’t to say you need to justify every action you do. It’s okay, and in my opinion important, to have those things which you decide are outside the scope of this analysis. These can be our core values, beliefs, morals. However, we should be aware of the things we choose to put into this category. Identifying them will both allow you to indulge in them without feeling guilt for the lack of justification, and will also protect them from being optimized away.
If you haven’t tried the exercise of asking yourself ‘why’, give it a shot. The next time your business is undertaking a project, make sure you understand why. Not the superficial why, but the why that ties it all the way back to the mission of your business. You’ll be that much more effective for the effort.