Asking “Why?”

I once worked on a large project that required us to hire lots of new people. New people are fantastic. As well as having more hands to help with the work you get a fresh pair of eyes and a new set of experiences and opinions. I loved the moment when a new person would ask ‘Why?’ after hearing how some part of the process worked. “What do you mean ‘Why’?” I would ask. “Why do you do it that way?” Many a process was refined or completely changed as a result of those early conversations.
Asking ‘Why’ is nothing new. Children are famous for their never-ending ‘Why’ questions. Rather than just trying to annoy you recent studies indicate that they are actively learning when they do it .
The ‘5-Why’s’ analysis method is a popular method for understanding why problems happen. If you manage to avoid the endless loop and dig down deeper to the actual cause of the problem then you have a powerful method for identifying improvements.
As useful as the 5-Whys method is I still feel something is missing. A 5-Why’s analysis session is common when trying to understand and resolve an issue. But why are we waiting for the problems to happen before we start asking ‘Why’? New people joining projects and children learning are missing the familiarity that makes the rest of us complacent. As you follow your process, log a bug, or join a meeting about a new feature ask yourself ‘Why?’
Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton was the one who asked why. – Bernard Baruch


  1. When I’m coaching someone I usually say something like “if you don’t ask me questions I’ll assume you don’t understand what I’m saying”. Once people understand “why”, the “how” usually comes naturally. With any luck the newcomer will spot a better “how”.

    1. Thanks for the comment, James. I certainly learn better if I ask questions and re-phrase things into my own words. You’ve got me thinking about learning techniques now – maybe there will be a follow up post.

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