Forgetting to ask Why

Why do we ask WHY so often when we are growing up, yet ask it so little as we grow older? Perhaps we are no longer curious. Or perhaps we think we know all the answers. Or perhaps we’ll feel stupid. But we risk missing out on a key life lesson if we fall into that trap. 

What would happen if – as adults – we started asking WHY more often? And what if we didn’t stop at one Why, but asked a whole lot of WHYs in a row, just like a child does?

Asking multiple WHYs is actually a formalized process in business. Called, simply, The Five WHYs, it was invented by Toyota’s Taiichi Ohno to help make Toyota’s manufacturing process more scientific. “By repeating WHY five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear,” Ohno said.

A simple example will help explain the five WHYs. Let’s say your car doesn’t start.

  1. Why isn’t it starting?  (The battery is dead)
  2. Why is that?  (The alternator is not functioning)
  3. Why is that happening? (The alternator belt has broken)
  4. Why did it break? (The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced)
  5. Why did that happen? (The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule)

Asking five or more WHYs gets us past the surface, past the symptoms, and deep down to the root of the problem. Only when we isolate the root cause are we able to fix something and make real change.

Why is such a powerful word. A few years ago I watched Simon Sinek’s TED Talk, Start With Why, then recently I decided to read his book. Sinek’s message is simple yet profound: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy Why you do it.”

To my dismay, I realized I had no clue WHY I did what I did for a living. Oh, sure. I knew WHAT I did. I wrote articles and books for businesses and business leaders. I knew HOW I did it. I asked questions and listened closely to the answers and did my research. But I didn’t really know why I was writing. My WHY, my reason for writing, completely escaped me, and that bothered me.

I thought long and hard about WHY. Most of us want to be part of a cause of some kind. A cause is something bigger than ourselves, something that we can be part of that will make us feel we belong and thus feel passionate about. I gradually came to the realization that I wanted to help people share their life lessons and their experiences. And the people I wanted to help most were business leaders because in many ways they have the most practical life lessons to share.

But still, that wasn’t really a cause.

So I drilled down further and realized that many of my most fulfilling moments came when I was collaborating on the writing of books with business leaders who were clear about their own WHY. Those who are clear about their WHY genuinely want to help people live a better life.

Who can argue with that?

Not many, of course. The trouble is, people don’t trust people who are offering something if they don’t know them. They can talk all they want, but talk is cheap. Talk must be backed up with provable action. But how? How do you demonstrate something so intangible? How can a stranger see a professional and say that person is very good at what they do, unless they are already a client? Referrals? Possibly. But we all know referrals are no guarantee of performance. Unless we literally see them in action, how can we know someone has a deep knowledge of their business and an understanding of our needs?

That’s the conundrum facing many professionals seeking to grow their companies. The managers of financial advisory firms, for example, need a cost-effective way to clearly demonstrate their expertise and commitment and experience in a tangible way to a wider audience. Even more important, they need to demonstrate their WHY — that they can make their clients’ financial lives better. And they need to demonstrate their WHY without ever being in direct contact with the prospect, and they need to scale their marketing efforts because there are only so many hours in the day.

That’s where my WHY starts.

Because my clients’ WHY is to help people lead better lives, my WHY has gradually become clearer. By helping the people who help people live better lives, I become part of that WHY. It is something bigger than me. It is a cause I can and do believe in. Start with WHY. Only then focus on how and what. By collaborating on the writing of a book with trustworthy and visionary business leaders, I help them broadcast their message and their life lessons and their expertise to an audience they might not otherwise have reached. In this way, I help people help more people to a better life.

WHY does your business exist? It isn’t to make money. That is just the result. If you start with WHY suddenly everything becomes clearer because people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Profound advice from Simon Sinek, a man whose own WHY is “to inspire people to do the things that inspire them.”

I am taking his message to heart and spreading the word.

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