The Value of Asking “Why?”

December 17, 2012 — 4 Comments

Why? It’s one of my all-time favorite questions. I’m told I asked my parents, “why?” over and over again as a kid and apparently I’ve never grown out of it. There’s no quicker way to cut to the heart of what’s most important, which is one of the greatest responsibilities leaders have. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. In his landmark book Getting Things Done, David Allen shares six distinct ways asking, “why?” adds value. They are too good to keep to myself, so I’ve listed them here below with my own short commentary.

Why

Asking Why Defines Success

People want to win. But no one can win without first defining what success looks like. Success is derived from purpose, no matter how large or small the project or idea.

Asking Why Creates Decision-Making Criteria

Have you ever been on a team struck by the “good idea fairy?” Did it send you down a massive rabbit trail? Don’t pull the trigger on an idea until you’ve established criteria to let you know if it fits or not.

Asking Why Aligns Resources

It’s great to have access to resources. But if you’re unclear on purpose, no amount of resources will ever be enough. Of course, simply spreading all resources evenly across all functions isn’t much better.  That’s where the value of “why” comes in; it shows where to concentrate your greatest resources.

Asking Why Motivates

Here’s a direct quote from David Allen: “If there’s no good reason to be doing something, it’s not worth doing.” If meaning truly is one of mankind’s most significance pursuits, it follows that meaningless activities have the power to completely demoralize. On the other hand, recalling why an activity is important renews the motivation to see it through.

Asking Why Clarifies Focus

When we don’t ask why, our purpose temporarily gets out of focus, much like the lens of a camera. Remember how much of a difference high definition television made when it first came to market? Asking why provides laser sharp, HD focus.

Asking Why Expands Options

Once focus is clear, we have freedom to think creatively about how to achieve the desired result. It’s like deciding which options you’d like in your new car. Once you decide on a model, you are freed up to decide how to customize it.

One final note: a post on “why” would be incomplete without including a mention of Simon Sinek‘s book Start With Why. Where Allen focuses on the practical side of asking why, Sinek harps on the inspirational merits.

What is it that you need to ask “why?” about this week?

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader.  Receive his ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or   follow him on Twitter.
  • I think the clarifying focus part is the strongest for me. It’s easy to just add on and add on things to do and projects to complete. But recentering ourselves on the big whys of our lives is what keeps us able to move ahead in an effective way.

    • I agree Loren and I’ve been guilty of doing that plenty of times. Thanks for the comment.

  • Leaders are pretty constant in saying that people need to define their own success because it is different for everyone. What scares me is the amount of people who haven’t defined what their success looks like. Too many people are wandering around without that vision to drive them. Where there is no vision, the people perish.

    • Chris, you’re right, it is scary. Don’t you think that repeatedly asking the why questions can really help with this? i.e. Why am I doing this or why is this important to me?