Why Ask Why?

by Geof Lory

I don't know a project team that doesn't struggle with gathering solid and well-understood requirements. It seems to be the thing that everyone knows is the starting point for a project, but usually is done informally and after the project is substantially along, if it is done at all. We struggle to ask the questions that get to the purpose of the project. Why is this so?

It surprises me how many project team members perform tasks, follow processes, fill-out forms or templates and create reports that provide no apparent value. With most people having more on their plate that they can handle, why are we willing to spend energy on things when we don't understand the reason behind them?

Why is the answer. More specifically, the word "why" is the answer, or at least part of it.

I have always found the word Why to be one of my best tools to get at the root of requirements or understand purpose, but also the most difficult word to use effectively. Why is a tricky word. Although it is a simple word, not even up to the standards of more popular and frequently used four-letter words, it is infinitely more powerful. And, like most items of power, it can be used both positively and negatively.

The word Why has the ability to uncover and expose the underlying purpose of behavior. Therein lays its power and impact. This power wielded in a safe and trusting environment generates consciousness and the opportunity for intentional alignment of behavior and purpose. However, used in an untrusting environment, Why becomes an accusation and elicits a need to defend or justify behavior. To the user, the word appears the same. To the recipient, the meaning can be dramatically different. Unfortunately, the recipient, not the speaker, gets to determine how the word is interpreted.

Organizations and project managers who focus on creating teams that foster an open and collaborative environment based on trust, tend to harness and optimize the power of Why. Those who don't are often left exposed to potentially dysfunctional behavior. This team dysfunction is often masked behind organizational culture and surfaces as blame and faultfinding. While this may be effective in punishing the guilty, it does little to achieve project results.

Why is a challenging word to use when dealing with children. Because of their age, children have an excuse for being less mature and trusting. Most of their "team members" are authority figures (a teacher, parents, or other chronologically classified grown-ups), who wield not only social power over them but also physical power. The world from the child's perspective seems intimidating. Self-preservation behavior is both logical and understandable. I'm not sure I would grant the same leniency to most people on company project teams, but I would ascribe the same behavior to most of us, at one time or another.

Because I do not get to determine how my Whys are interpreted, I have made a conscious effort to limit or completely remove the word Why from my vocabulary. I have to admit this is not only a challenge, but also done with some self-righteous resistance. It has worked out well in creating and fostering communication based on trust and respect. It also opens conscious discussion that leads to releasing the potential in my team members as well as my daughters.

This does not mean that I have stopped asking Why, just that I have stopped using the word Why. I have replaced it with a phrase that means the same thing but tends to elicit a more open and inviting response. It goes like this:

"Help me understand the reason ... " equals Why.

The key to this rephrasing is that it approaches the situation from a perspective of learning and open-mindedness, rather than justification and accusation. It genuinely asks Why in a way the recipient is more conditioned to respond thoughtfully and honestly, not mindlessly and defensively. Additionally, it generates a sense of parity between the asker and asked, as the teacher becomes the student, seeking to learn, not judge.

This distinction should not be underestimated or seen as simply a manipulation of words. Words are powerful as our primary mode of communication. Combined with collaborative body language and inviting intonations, this rephrasing builds the trust that is key to high-performing teams. It encourages connection through open collaboration instead of separation through defense. In project teamwork, which increasingly calls for cross-functional interaction, teams are made up of individuals who may never have worked together to establish trust through familiarity. Anything that can be done to build trust will ultimately help the team succeed.
Some time ago, my oldest promised to be home with the car before curfew. When she was not home on time, I called her cell phone, only to get her voice mail. She most likely had it turned off or was not answering it. Twenty minutes later, and many more attempts to reach her, my anger was turning to worry when we finally connected. I simply told her to come home immediately.

When she entered the door, she was positioned defensively. This was her first deliberate attempt at pushing the limits as a teenager, and she was prepared to hold her ground. As calmly as I could, I asked her to confirm our understanding of the curfew, use of the car, and cell phone. Her explanation indicated we were on the same page. Then I asked her to "help me understand the reason you felt comfortable staying out with the car, past curfew and not answering your phone." I unfolded my arms, opened my ears, and closed my mouth waiting for her response. I got it what I asked for.

Admittedly, our conversation did not start out well, and I had to continually reaffirm that I was trying to understand not reprimand. Eventually, the conversation calmed and she explained her reasoning for her behavior. This took 45 minutes. Better yet, we shared ideas for 45 minutes. A rare pleasure for a dad and daughter, especially at midnight. The result was a greater understanding on my part of her wants, and increased acknowledgement on her part of my fears and concerns. More importantly, 45 minutes of collaboration built the trust that enables us to have these conversations and end up in a better place.

I'm certain my oldest is not done pushing the limits as she grows into her independence. That's OK. I look forward to the opportunity of spending 45 minutes or more continuing to build our trust. It won't be long and she will be on her own. Hopefully, she will come to expect this type of relationship and interaction with her friends, co-workers and potential partner. How cool would that be?

Plus, she will make a great team member.

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