If You Don't Know Why, Don't Do Anything

Image courtesy of Anthony Burrill

Image courtesy of Anthony Burrill

The Big Idea:

Learning to effectively ask why is the business equivalent of the Leatherman multi-tool. If you want to inspire and lead people, do really effective work that stands out from the crowd, or get to the root cause of a problem, learning to thoughtfully ask why is an indispensable skill. Seriously, start asking it more often.

The Briefing:

This week, we’re combining two different concepts that both pertain to asking why. First, we’re presenting the idea that every organization, and every individual for that matter, has a purpose. That purpose is a unique “Why.” Understanding what that is, and being able to communicate it clearly is an extremely effective way to inspire and lead others.

This is the core principle at the heart of Simon Sinek’s bookStart With Why. This is, quite literally, heady stuff. The power of why is rooted in the biology of the brain. When you get down to understanding and appealing to people at that level, you’ve gone into the depths of the brain that deal directly with feelings, gut-level reactions, and actual behavior. For those of you who are extremely detail oriented, that would be the limbic part of the brain. This is way deeper than facts and figures can ever get. We’re talking about the part that tells you if something feels “right.” Powerful stuff.

In the book, Sinek outlines a concept he calls the “Golden Circle” that illustrates how people and brands can more effectively connect with others by communicating messages that answer the question why. We’re providing a link to a 20-minute talk in which he lays out the basics of the circle and how it works. Why is this concept important? As he puts it, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Amen!

Our second concept related to asking why is the system of Five Whys, developed by Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System. In its simplest form, the system gets you down to the root cause of a problem if you keep asking why five times. Drilling down to that level gives you an opportunity to really solve the problem as opposed to just treating a symptom of the real issue. And here’s the kicker. By the time you get down to the root cause, it’s almost always a human problem, not a technical one.

Asking why is a relatively simple thing. But most people just don’t do it enough. They ask what or how. Why is the piece that speaks to the root or purpose of a person, organization, or problem. You need to care about why. And if you don’t know why you’re doing something, maybe it would actually be better to not do anything.

Take Action:

  • Buy Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why and read it cover to cover. Twice.
  • Start asking “Why?” more often. When talking about a problem with colleagues or clients, literally ask why five times. Using the system of the Five Why’s should get you to the root cause of a problem.
  • Take some time to think about what your own unique “Why” is. Start to share that with others (family, coworkers, etc.).

Dig Deeper:

Here are some other resources that expand upon the importance of asking why more often.

Simon Sinek’s TED Talk on the importance of understanding “Why.” - Via ted.com

To Get To The Root Of A Hard Problem, Just Ask “Why” Five Times by Eric Ries - Via fastcodesign.com