‘Where’, ‘when’, ‘what’ and ‘who’ all have their place as questions go: getting answers to them gives our lives more structure and intelligibility, and helps us to master our daily schedules. ‘How’ is probably a step up the evolutionary ladder of questions: if we know how, we know the method as well as the ingredients – we’ll need practice at it, but we have pretty much the whole recipe. Time will tell exactly what kind of meal we will make of it. But ‘why’ – in the poker game of ‘my question asks more than yours does’ – must be the top trump.

“Why?” is what gives context and purpose – if we only know what, where and how (and even who), we might know what to do, but we’d be no closer to having a reason for doing it. Knowing why is how we come to understand. Young children notoriously ask ‘why?’ on a seemingly incessant basis: I remember the mother of my god-daughter almost in tears in the middle of a supermarket on the receiving end of the umpteenth question of the day and saying despairingly “It just is, sweetheart, it just is.” She must have made a better job of answering the other thousands of repetitions, as her daughter is now an almost scarily bright and perceptive teenager.

It’s a point not lost on Steve Roesler in his blog, All Things Workplace, where he underlines the value of ‘why’ as a question:

I’ve watched managers bark absolutely appropriate directions at employees. The response was appropriate as well: “Why do you want us to do it this way?” That’s not insubordination, it’s an intelligent question. Knowing the purpose allows people to make good decisions when problems arise. If an action is going to cost 20% of budget and part of the purpose is to stay within 10%, employees know how to respond effectively.”

This explanation of ‘why’ is, in itself, a good elaboration on a quotation from Peter Drucker that illustrates just what can happen when we forget to ask that one little question:

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

The search for meaning is a primal one. For Victor Frankl, whose classic text Man’s Search for Meaning has influenced countless others – including many focused on leadership development – the will to meaning is the most basic human motivation. Frankl survived the Nazi concentration camps of World War II, and his experiences and observations led to the development of logotherapy (from the Greek logos – or ‘meaning’), the tenets of which are: 

  1. Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.
  2. Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.
  3. We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or a least in the stand we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.”

Although truly grim experiences can undoubtedly be life-transforming, Frankl’s emphasis on our inescapable need to know why has resounded down the years since his work was published in 1946. Here’s an extract from an article on Organisational Archaeology by Dr Kevin Roe, Managing Director of Oasis Management Consultancy Ltd and Professor John Burgoyne, Professor of Management Learning at Lancaster University Management School and Henley Management College:

Leaders in today’s changing and multi-faceted organisations need to dig – they need to become organisational archaeologists trying to uncover the hidden values and meaning within their organisations. Why was the organisation originally set up and why do people really work there? Whilst Hertzberg’s usual hygiene factors (e.g. pay, belonging, purpose) will no doubt be pressing, organisations where meaning can be articulated and made real to the employees as a unifying call stand a real chance of drawing together the workforce in the face of the forces of deconstruction […]. Whilst there may be potential challenges with this approach – especially if the old way was bad or the new leader wishes to distance himself from a previous position – a reminder of values, of why people gather together in a particular organisation, may offer embattled leaders a stake in the ground as they search for meaning that adds value to their organisation. Grasping a metaphorical shovel to dig for the hidden organisational artefacts may give individuals in the organisation a focus as they move forward in an uncertain world. Organisational Archaeology may be a way of using the past to inform the future.”

‘Why’ obviously has resonance for archaeologists and historians: the past was our route to the present – understanding it gives clarity. But knowing why isn’t just a ‘rear view mirror’ activity. When we know why to do something as well as what to do, we are better placed to adapt to changes in the challenges and tasks we face: procedural knowledge – knowing what process to apply or follow – will only carry us so far. If the circumstances change beyond close parameters, the process may not be effective any longer. As managing and leading is fundamentally concerned with responding to and managing change, procedural know-how can only ever be part of their arsenal.

‘Why?’ doesn’t just help us in acting appropriately: it helps us in learning how to do so – and in changing our behaviours. Understanding why we behave as we do – and why aspects of that may need to change – are fundamental steps in effective personal development. Exploring ‘why’ doesn’t just enable us to learn, it makes our learning more effective. To quote Cyril Kirwan from his book Improving Learning Transfer:

The cognitive approach is particularly important in the development of what is called adaptive expertise, which relates to the learner’s ability to respond successfully to changes in the nature of the trained task. In effect this means individuals learning what to do (procedural knowledge) as well as learning why they should do it (declarative knowledge). This involves mindful processing and abstraction. […] Unfortunately, many training programmes use methods that are aimed at the acquisition of procedural rather than declarative knowledge. These methods, whilst facilitating near transfer, actually inhibit far transfer. The development of adaptive expertise should be particularly relevant in the context of more complex skills and knowledge that are integral to management development-type training.”

If you’re focused on developing know-how, it might be worth pausing to reflect if that will give you everything you need. There are plenty of people in the world who know more than they used to, yet have achieved little as a consequence. Other bloggers on leadership and development seem to agree. George Ambler, author of The Practice of Leadership, certainly sees ‘why’ as being as – and probably more – important that ‘how’:

Personally I think there is too much ‘know-how’ and not enough ‘know-why’ in business for the following reasons:

  • There is too much noise, such as media hype, weak internal communication and political considerations, which distract an organisation from what really matters.
  • Management is more comfortable talking about deadlines, costs and risks than talking about accountability, values and purpose.
  • Organisations are more focused on implementing the latest management fad, best practice and management tool than focusing on what the organisation really wants to create.”

He’s not alone. Harvard Business Review’s Working Knowledge explored the same issues in answering the leading (no pun intended) question: Is There Too Little “Know Why” In Business? Building and communicating a shared sense of purpose is the reason organisations have values and mission statements. Leading is just about asking why – though it’s certainly not an act of sub-ordination to do so: it’s also about communicating why – inspiring a sense of purpose and meaning – to others. Or to return to Frankl for a final quote:

If you don’t recognize…. man’s search for meaning, you make him worse you make him dull, you make him frustrated…” 

I’m guessing dull and frustrated isn’t how you want the people around you to be, so … any questions?

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