The question that seems to irritate people more than any other is the simple question ‘why?’  We probably find it irritating as it challenges our thinking, questions our conclusions and forces into providing an explanation for our judgements and decisions.

Have you ever heard a child repeatedly asking a parent the question ‘why?’  Generally the parent will give a considered response the first time; but if the child is not satisfied with the answer and asks ‘why?’ again, the parent is likely to start getting annoyed.  As an example, I once overheard an amusing conversation between a woman and her young son.  The child bent down to pick something up off the floor.  ‘Don’t touch that’ his mother said. ‘Why?’ he replied.  ‘Because it’s dirty and you shouldn’t touch it’ his mother responded.  ‘Why?’ he asked again.  By now the mother was looking flustered and a bit cross, she replied; ‘It might have germs on it’ and then after a short pause ‘haven’t you heard of AIDS?’

The result is that we all grow up with an aversion to the question ‘why?’  We don’t like asking ‘why?’ as it feels confrontational, and we don’t like people asking us ‘why?’ as it feels as though they are challenging our authority.  Yet in business the question ‘why?’ is one of the most valuable questions we can ask.

Consider for a moment how things might have turned out differently if the Directors of Lloyds Bank had been more questioning when the Government persuaded them to acquire the liabilities of HBOS, of if more questions had been asked of the Directors of Kodak when they began selling off the numerous patents they held in digital photography, or if more people had asked ‘why?’ when the Directors of RIM decided that touch-screen smartphones would not be popular.

In each of these cases hindsight demonstrates that bad decisions could have been avoided and better decisions made if people had been challenged on their basic assumptions.  Here’s an example of how:

A few years ago I was working with a Sales Director who had been asked to double the company’s sales within a year.  Here is the conversation we had after he told me that he was recruiting more sales people:

AS: ‘Why?’ I asked.
Sales Director: ‘Because we need to increase our activity levels if we are to achieve the new target’ he responded. 
AS:  ‘Will that work?
Sales Director: ‘Probably not’
AS: ‘Why not?’
Sales Director: ‘Because the biggest thing holding us back in the market is our poor service standards’

We then had a lengthy conversation about how he could build a stronger relationship between the Sales Division and the Customer Services Division with a view to improving service standards.  By the end of the year the sales target had been achieved, service standards had improved and no additional sales people had been recruited.

The point is that I didn’t provide any answers, I simply asked the questions.  The answers were already staring them in the face, but by sticking with conventional wisdom and by shying away from the challenging question ‘why?’, they were overlooking the best course of action.

About the Author
Alistair Schofield is Managing Director of Extensor Limited.