Tip #327: A Riff on “Why”

“I am one of the people who love the why of things.” Catherine the Great

This is going to be a riff on the importance of knowing “why.”

1. I worked for the State of Wisconsin for ten years, primarily in the area of human resources. It became clear to me very quickly that managers generally told their employees what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. But they rarely, if ever, told them why it was important.

If you don’t know why something needs to be done, what its purpose might be, or what the consequences could be if it isn’t done- then it is very difficult to:

(a) be invested in performing the specific project,

(b) make useful decisions to further the success of the project, or

(c) make the necessary adjustments if things go differently than the
manager expected.

2. This is particularly pertinent to the issue of change management. If we really want people to change behavior, they need to see why it will benefit them. It is neither compelling nor engaging to tell them that management wants it or that the law mandates it. They need to understand why choosing not to change will adversely impact them in ways that truly matter to them.

3. For this reason, I stress the importance of having two goals for every learning program: what the participants will learn and why they will care about it. Our learning objectives evolve from our training goals. If we don’t focus in on why the participants will want to learn what we are teaching, we may have great difficulty getting their buy in.

4. Little children continually ask “why?” It is not enough for them to see that the sky is blue, they want to know why it’s blue. They seem to have an innate understanding that everything has a purpose. They want to learn the reason for things and thoughts and behaviors- and they often stump adults, because many of us have set aside our curiosity. We have lost our sense of wonder at life. I wonder why?

5. However, there are adults who retain their sense of wonder and curiosity about the world. Scientists spend their lives trying to discover the why behind natural phenomena.

6. Actually, I think that anyone who cares about doing a good job wants to find the answer to why: Why do children drop out of school? Why does a rocket booster fail? Why do plants grow in one place and not another? There are an infinite number of questions that start with why?

7. Why is ultimately a politically charged word. Unless we question why things are the way they are, we won’t be able to understand them. If we don’t understand their origin and purpose, we will have no benchmark to judge whether or not the purpose is being achieved. My guess is that all changes: all inventions, all creativity, all revolutions began with someone asking “Why?” Why is it this way and not that way? Why do some people have everything while many people have nothing?

8. I used to have a friend who responded to every why with a why not? So often, we ask someone why they are doing something- and implicit in our question is a clear judgment that they should NOT be doing that something. The flip side of asking why is looking at alternatives- why this, why not that?

9. Someone long ago responded to my question why? by saying that “Y is a crooked letter.” It is a clever way to distract someone so that you don’t have to give him or her a real answer. However, it is terribly frustrating to receive that response when you really want to know something.

10. There are times we ask “why?” without any expectation that we will receive a satisfying answer: Why me? Why do bad things happen to good people? Sometimes there is no obvious reason why. That is even more demoralizing.

However, a wise woman once told me that when sad things happen, why? is the wrong question. What we need to ask is how? How will we handle this situation? How will we help those who suffer?

Perhaps if someone had stopped to ask How will we handle an oil drilling disaster? or How will we handle it if the levees don’t hold? we might have been better prepared to respond quickly and effectively. Why didn’t anyone anticipate these issues? And if they did, why didn’t they have a plan in place?

May your learning be sweet.


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