“Why?” is Among a Leader’s Most Important Questions

Why it is fundamental to ask “WHY?”

Asking “Why?” is a doorway to opening a whole new range of possibilities in your mind and the minds of those who are proposing a course of action. It is shorthand for “what is really standing in our way? Please explain the other alternatives that might move us forward and why this is the best one.”

“Why?” can and should be asked about almost everything. Why are we trying to solve this problem this way? Why is this the best way to take advantage of this opportunity? Why aren’t we growing revenues or profits faster? Why don’t we have the reputation of having the highest quality products or the best customer service in our industry? Why do we produce this report? Why do we have this meeting every two weeks?

Common explanations

It is common for the leader who constantly asks “Why?” to hear explanations like the following, most of which are true, but also represent taking the easy and familiar solution:

· We have always done it this way and it has worked in the past.

· That’s what you said we should do when we had this problem last year.

· That’s the way it’s done in this industry or sector.

· It’s less expensive.

· There is less risk than the alternatives.

· Customer demand is shrinking.

· Customer demand is growing slowly and there is a lot of competition.

· We are on the verge of a recession.

· There is too much competition.

· We are in a commodity business.

· It is better than the alternative.

The right response to those explanations is “Tell me what else is possible and why you chose this course of action?” Every explanation listed above begs for “Is there another way that might produce a better outcome?” It may be true that the original proposal is less expensive but spending more may produce greater benefits that are well worth the additional cost. It may be true that there is a lot of competition, but some competitors will do better than others, so the real question is what are the actions that will put us in the top 20%? It may be true that the organization is financially constrained, but what other resources can be found (e.g., a joint venture)?

"Don’t you have confidence in me?"

A team that is not accustomed to being asked “Why?” all the time will at first find it irritating. he leader’s challenge is to explain and demonstrate that the question does not reflect a lack of trust, but is designed to liberate the mind from the usual answers – to think bigger, bolder and more innovatively. It is essential that the leader walk the talk, which means that when you learn that the course of action first proposed really is the best alternative, the person who proposed it should be whole-heartedly congratulated. If the discussion reveals a better course of action with acceptable risks, he or she still should be congratulated for drawing it from the discussion, not criticized for not proposing it at first.

Communicating about uncertainty

One of the most important functions of a senior leader is to ensure that the organization is dealing with uncertainty – and every organization is knee-deep in uncertainty these days. A good leader tries to look deeper into the future and the external environment, to peer around corners, and learn from others outside the organization who are facing the same challenges – all to try to understand what changes are coming down the road. Most of the members of that leader’s team are focused on much shorter-term goals – e.g., meeting that year’s sales or production goals. Asking "why?" is also an entry point to communicating the range of possible events – good and bad – in the medium-term future and generating reflection whether the risks associated with each alternative.

Why” is a high road to accountability. It is a way of requiring transparency about what went into an executive’s judgment.

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