Thursday, 15 October 2015

The five powers of “why”

As a parent I well remember when my daughters were little and they would often ask the question “why?”… repeatedly, and sometimes to the point of frustration! Intuitively they knew the power of why: it’s so much more important than what or how or who or when.
This article briefly discusses several ways in which why is so powerful.

The first power of why: symbols

Simon Sinek writes and speaks of his discoveries about the power of why. His golden circles have why at the centre of three concentric circles; surrounded by how and then what. Most organisations, he says, define themselves from the outside in, e.g. “We make great computers (what) that are fast, well designed and full of features (how): do you want to buy one?” – so there is no why included. Then he gives a company like Apple as an alternative. They start with the why and work outwards, e.g. “Are you an individual who likes to be independent and buck normal trends? Then we have something for you – everything we do is first class quality aimed at people like you. We happen to make computes: want to buy one?” The latter is more compelling because it appeals to us as people and individuals, and – very cleverly – pins its product line to a personality type (independent, perhaps even revolutionary), so people who feel they are like that (or aspire to) are attracted to it. In other words, when they buy an Apple it’s because they identify with Apple’s purpose (its “why”) and the Apple device becomes a symbol of who they are: “look at me, I’m an individual kind of person”. This breeds brand loyalty because the brand becomes associated with the person’s self-identity, and is why Apple owners get annoyed if you attack Apple: it’s also an attack on them.

So the first power of why is to use it in defining ourselves as people and as organisations. At a party, when you meet someone for the first time, do you ask the question “what kind of person are you?” – usually not; normally it’s “what do you do?” as if the job someone has is a symbol of who they are. Now sometimes it is, when it’s highly vocational (“I’m a doctor”)… but what if it’s “I’m an estate agent”! When we describe ourselves to others we automatically fall into this kind of thing and avoid the real “whys” of who we are. We’ll say “I’m a project manager at So-and-So-dot-com, I also am married and have three children. I play tennis. I like fast cars.” Now some of this is reasonably good symbology, but it’s not as accurate as a description such as “I’m the sort of person who invests more importance in family and enjoyment of life than in work. So although I’m a project manager at So-and-So-dot-com, I also am married and have three children. I play tennis. I like fast cars.”

Including the why is so much more powerful – yet in our descriptions of ourselves and our companies it’s so often missing.

The second power of why: root causes

Readers who are familiar with Lean and with the Toyota Production System (TPS – from which Lean sprang) will know that central to any initiative for improvement lies an understanding of the current state. Both Lean and TPS provide several tools for this, including things like process modelling, keen observation of the actual processes that go on and root cause analysis. The last of these includes things like cause and effect diagrams and “the 5 whys”.

The 5 whys is a simple technique that is used to dig deeper than the initial observation about a situation, issue or problem. For example one might observe that students in a university typically don’t attend their lectures very often. If we ask the question why, the first responses (from academic staff) might be along the lines of “they’re too lazy” or “they think they can just read the course materials”, etc.. The trick is not to accept these initial responses, but to dig deeper: “Why are they too lazy? Why do they think just reading the materials is good enough?” and continue up to five times – usually that’s enough – until a key underlying cause is identified. For example:

Students in a university typically don’t attend their lectures very often… Why? [1]
They’re too lazy… Why? [2]
They don’t have a strong enough work ethic… Why? [3]
They think that lectures are a waste of time… Why? [4]
They say that the lectures are boring… Why? [5]
The lectures often just cover the same ground that’s in the reading materials without adding any real insight

The result is often a more profound insight into the issue, and often also reveals something entirely different than the superficial response. For example if we acted on the “student is lazy” issue we might put in place measures to enforce lecture attendance. However if we miss the fact that lectures aren’t actually very interesting (and therefore don’t improve them) we don’t make significant and useful change (we just end up with students who are annoyed at being forced to attend lectures they find boring).

The problem is that we often don’t try to dig deeper when faced with issues and problems in the workplace (or in our personal lives). Using a few whys can help change that.

The third power of why: outcomes

This is really just a variation of the root cause example, but it’s worth separating out because of the difference in objective. Root cause analysis aims to find out why something is happening so that (usually) it can be improved. Here we are looking instead at risk-taking – the reasons why we want to do something (or not do it); for example a new business venture.

Those of us who are project managers will be very familiar with the difficulty of getting clarity here. When we write business cases one of the key things to tease out is the justification for doing the project – it’s “why”. Too often the why is about the output rather than the outcome (or benefit). For example “We want to implement a new CRM so that we can get a 360o view of our students’ activities.” Well a CRM may well provide this, but that’s just an output. What use will this be?

Within a project management environment I have found the best tool to use here is Gerald Bradley’s Benefit Realisation Management (I have written an article on this, so won’t repeat the detail here). It allows you to identify the benefits you want to achieve, and thus to much more effectively justify the project. Done well, it also sometimes questions the initial solution and allows you to come up with a much better one (just as the 5 whys allows you to find the true root cause of a problem).

Using the CRM example, it might emerge that the benefits are that we want students who progress more successfully through their degrees and achieve better degree outcomes. We think CRM will help because by tracking students at all points through their journey we’ll have a better picture of their challenges, and thus be better able to deal with them in a more timely fashion. Well, maybe so, but perhaps if we put in place a more structured and personalised tutor-based support network this would achieve the same outcome without the need for a CRM. This is the sort of thing that emerges when you do a benefit realisation analysis because it forces you look at the underlying reasons and then at different ways of achieving them.

The third power of why is that by putting more effort into defining why we want to do something, we’ll be better equipped to do it successfully: we’ll have better outcomes.

The fourth power of why: advancement of knowledge

We’re back at the start of this article: the persistent child who constantly asks why and doesn’t just an answer “just because”. The young child has a thirst for knowledge and their persistent questioning is a positive outpouring of this desire. Answers like “because I say so” not only do not satisfy that urge, they can shut it down. So instead of getting frustrated with their persistence we should openly welcome and encourage it. Often we won’t know the answer, but that’s just an opportunity to investigate (and do it with our children).

Like all of the above whys, this approach is time-consuming, so more often than not we don’t do it. But if any of these whys is most important, it’s this one. So let’s look at a couple of typical scenarios.

Why things are

One sort of questioning is wanting to investigate why things are so: “Why is the moon out at night and not during the day? Why do dogs bark and cats meow?” The response here should be to provide information: and if you don’t know the answer, to find it out together with the child who asked the question. This will often open up further whys, so you need to provide boundaries that the child can understand. Rather than shutting them down with “just because”, we explain that we only have so much time to spend on this right now, and we can come back to it at a later date. (And if they ask why, refer to scenario two, below).

Spending time in this way has many positive benefits – it helps develop close bonds with one’s children; it helps them develop a healthy questioning mind: it helps them – and you – advance their (and your) knowledge: it feels good!

Why are there rules

Another sort of questioning is about rules: “Why do I have to eat my greens? Why do I have to take my shoes off when I come indoors?” Frustrating as it is, this is a great line of questioning to allow your child to pursue: instinctively they are doing a “5 whys” on you! So allow it to be an opportunity to explore for yourself, as well as your child, the underlying reasons for the rules. Sometimes this will branch off into the “why things are” line of questioning (e.g. eating one’s greens could open up in this way). Sometimes it will lead you to re-evaluate – and therefore renegotiate – the rule.  For example the shoes off rule could be renegotiated according to how clean they are when the child enters the house.

As well as the benefits already mentioned, spending time examining and perhaps changing rules is showing respect for the child and helping to develop their self-esteem.

Oh, and by the way, this doesn’t just apply to children!

The fifth power of why: self-actualisation

Readers may recognise this term as one used in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Self-actualisation is at the top of the hierarchy – it’s the pinnacle we can reach in terms of creativity, morality, spontaneity, self-expression, etc..  So in this context, why is a question to ask ourselves: “Why do I do what I do?” For example you might have a job you hate, but because of high unemployment it’s the best you can get. In Maslow terms the job is addressing the second tier (safety) which includes things like security of body and family, for which you need to earn enough to feed, clothe and house yourself and your family. Recognising this allows you to more easily accept your job for what it is, and also not to expect it to deliver anything higher up the hierarchy (e.g. it’s not going to enhance your self-esteem).

Once you have realised this, you can then treat that situation accordingly: for example if there are stresses at work, you can learn to take them less personally once you have realised that work does not contribute to the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. And you can make decisions about what does contribute. (By the way there are other schemes like Maslow’s, such as Spiral Dynamics – they all have the same general thrust, so use the one that suits you best).

There’s a song by the American group Casting Crowns called American Dream. In it the father spends all his time working hard so that he can give his family the best in life. But in doing so he actually ignores their need to have time with him. (It’s not a new idea, but the song expresses it well and succinctly, and there’s a great video that accompanies it).

So the fifth why is a personal one: it’s about making sure you know why you do what you do, and to re-evaluate your own priorities in life.


You probably have realised that all five whys are related – essentially they are all about digging deeper:

  • Defining why we do what we do
  • Understanding why the things we see are happening
  • Being clearer about why we want to do something new
  • Helping our children and ourselves to understand why things are as they are
  • Understanding our own personal why of existence

Great leaders instinctively understood these things. When Martin Luther King said “I have a dream” he was doing all of the above. When Jesus questioned the rich young ruler, he was making the ruler examine his own inner motivation. It’s interesting that Buddha literally means “the enlightened one”, and much of Buddhism is about understanding oneself at a deep level.


All of the URLs below were accessed 15 October 2015. I cannot guarantee that they will still be live when you follow them.

  1. Simon Sinek’s ideas can be found in his many presentations that are available online: for example 
  2. Apple’s advertising - a typical example can be found here:
    Compare it with a typical Dell advert here (NB I’m not singling out Dell, this could equally be IBM, HP, etc.):
  3. 5 Whys: there are many sites that describe this technique and its links to Lean. This one is as good as any: 
  4. Gerald Bradley’s Benefit Realisation Management – it’s best to buy the book! The publisher provides a good sample chapter here: and you can buy the book here: 
  5. Children asking why: 
  6. There are many articles available on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Here’s an example that includes a video by Maslow himself: 
  7. For Spiral Dynamics, go here: 
  8. The Casting Crowns song lyrics and video for American Dream: 
  9. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream…” speech: 
  10. Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler:

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