The problem with the WHY: Why the WHY question is not so smart

The funny thing about the WHY question…

Ever since Simon Sinek raised the issue of the ‘WHY’ question, the world has been fascinated: The question of WHY has become a business mantra. No matter how, when, why, from whom, or to whom, we run around in circles, to try to discover the ‘purpose’ . This question is filled with the seductive sweet poison of reasoning logic.

Using the WHY question to drive your business into autopilot

‘Apple would not be where they are today if they had not focused and reflected on the question of WHY without exception.’ This is a commonly held myth in business. Even though Apple is often the example used in these myths about successful, innovative companies, there is still the potential to learn from this cause-and-effect model with your business. The thinking is, simply ask yourself WHY and pretty soon your business is running smoothly in autopilot mode.  

Someone may counter this point saying, ‘Yes, but questioning the purpose of what we are doing is hardly so simple’, and they would be right. We’ve all heard countless TED Talks, read inspirational magazine articles, or even attended webinars or training sessions which offer this quick fix. While asking WHY is important, the simple explanation can be full of misunderstandings. I hope to clarify some of the problems and misunderstandings that come with the WHY question approach.

Focus on people

‘He who asks, leads’ is an old wise saying. Anyone who asks questions should already be well aware of the truth in this statement. The quality of the question plays a role as well. When you master the technique of asking the right question to the right person at the right time, you increase not just your understanding, but also the knowledge of those around you.

When we talk about customer centricity today, then everything, really everything revolves around the topic of customer needs. But what does the customer really want? And above all: WHY? There’s a lot of talk about empathy. The customer is always the focus, and secretly always in the way for many. That is why companies want to get rid of the tiresome obligations of customer centricity quickly and jump right to the heart of the matter. “Why?” is often the simple request in well-intentioned customer surveys. I can’t put it nicely, I’m afraid, so I must be frank: The question WHY doesn’t work!     

The quality of the question determines the level of insight

You can think of question quality in terms of a hierarchy. At the top of this question pyramid are the questions which will gather the most insight. These questions are the ones that are focused on the motivations of people. At the base of the pyramid we have simple questions. These are closed questions, sometimes yes/no questions, and they focus on decision making.

Sometimes when we ask these simpler, decision-making questions, we may even predict one or two answers that the person might give. We might judge the interviewee based on their answer. This often doesn’t lead to more insight, at least nothing really important. During this line of questioning, you might think, ‘so what?!’ How does this question enhance our understanding? Sadly, many of these lower-level questions don’t.

How can we move up a bit further on the levels of the question pyramids, so to speak? The open questions – i.e. questions that do not have structured answers – provide a wide range of answers. For open questions, it is important to invite people to tell stories, to let them speak and to guide them initially with questions after which they can follow their own minds.

It’s no mystery that people enjoy talking about things from their perspective. People love to give their opinions, to say how their day is going, to explain how they feel about something, especially when they have an empathetic, sympathetic listener to share those feelings with. Maybe that’s the magic of good questions. Customer journeys take advantage of this because the customer describes the context of their experience in detail, and sometimes they even go above and beyond that.

Most people like to be asked questions. They feel like they are being treated like an expert when their opinion is given such a high value. This flatters the interviewee, inviting them – with open and appreciative questioning techniques – to comprehensively share information which can lead to deep insights into how the interviewee perceives the topic.

The top of the question pyramid is home to the questions which ask WHY and as a result it stands out when we want to explicitly define motivations. But what is particularly frustrating, when we directly ask a simple WHY, is that we usually receive a simple answer. What do we do with the simple answers? Do we take them at face value and compare and contrast them to other answers on a one-to-one basis? This brings us back again to linear thinking, which assumes that there is a basis for our opinions, our attitudes, and our actions. And: that we know this reason, have consciously reflected on it and can simply articulate it.

The desire to make the entire decision making process visible and thus transparent through enquiries remains a noble, yet rather hopeless endeavor. With the WHY question we often force people to explain themselves, which they have to justify. As a rule, however, with the simple, direct WHY, we get nothing but quickly rationalized responses, or, at best, partial explanations.

The number of WHY questions doesn’t solve the problem

When we repeatedly ask WHY, it may not solve a problem. The objection: ‘One WHY is not enough! You have to ask WHY five times in a row, like how Toyota does in order to get to the bottom of things!’ is not really smart. Or rather, it’s another myth about this method. As if the number of  direct WHY questions will fundamentally raise the quality of the question to another level.

This is about as smart as if I had the wrong opinion that a safety jacket could help with my fear of the dark. And if it didn’t work with the first jacket, then it would if I just wore five safety jackets, changing the material if necessary. Of course that would work, right?

The simple, direct WHY question implies that there is only one reason, only one motivation for doing or thinking something, whether we know it or not.

Changing perspective allows us to think outside the box

So what really helps? We can learn more about people’s needs by encouraging them to change their perspective in order to gain new insight. This is both unusual and enlightening for both the interviewee and the questioner. The question “How do you know you’re happy” is 10 times smarter than “Why are you happy?”

‘When was the last time you were happy?’, ‘What happens when you are happy?’, ‘What would other people say about how you behave when you are happy?’ – these systematic questions open up a space for thinking. Smart questions encourage you to pause and think, usually with a break before and afterwards. These silences must be endured and the pauses not shortened by hasty conclusions.

Not every answer is an insight

Not everything presented as an answer is an insight. When we have experienced something new or exciting, it can easily lead us to premature conclusions. If we truly want to discover the needs and motivations of the interviewee, then we must not take answers on face value alone. We must dig deeper, we must read into answers and interpret them. This includes observing interviewees when they answer. Is their posture, tone of voice, and body language consistent with their response? If areas of tension arise, follow these trails.

The results are more or less plausible hypotheses that can certainly be used to explain patterns. As uncomfortable as this may sound, this is the best we can achieve by observing and questioning people about their needs. And the biggest challenge is whether you, as the questioner, are willing and able to say goodbye to your own biases.

Eight tips for asking quality questions that lead us to insightful answers

  1. Create an inviting environment for your interviewee. Make them feel appreciated. Empathize with them. Show sincere interest in their input and don’t judge their answers.
  2. Encourage your interviewee to respond with storytelling by using open questions about their current life situation. Invite them to speak at length about things that they are passionate about Get them comfortable and enthusiastic in their own mind before they have to think about your topics.
  3. Pay special attention to tone of voice, posture, gestures, and facial expressions. Try to notice inconsistencies between what’s been said and what is obviously felt. Withstand  periodic pauses and breaks. They are often behind breakthroughs to real insight.
  4. Don’t jump to conclusions. The most obvious conclusion is not always the right one.
  5. Avoid simple, direct WHY questions. They will produce answers that are unlikely to reveal the true motivations.
  6. Gather as much information as you can from the questions. Try to recognize patterns in the answers as you gradually approach the topic of their motivations.
  7. Identifying motivation is an iterative process in which we have hypotheses that need to be investigated and evaluated. Which is why: Stay open and be willing to separate yourself from your own biases.

Despite all our wishes and needs: In our search for the WHY, we will never be able to make more than educated guesses. But these will have to serve us well, until we can become a bit smarter when we receive next bit of feedback.  

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About the Author

Jule Jankowski is an independent innovation consultant and moderator. Jule is enthusiastically dedicated to the topic of Human Centricity, she empowers teams at the staff and leadership levels to develop agile ideas, which helps organizations take the decisive step toward customer centricity. Her most recent projects involve design sprints on the topics of product and brand development as well as training/consultancy on agile leadership.