Why?

In nearly every company that I have been privileged to work for, it has amazed me how little forethought is given to the ripples caused by major decisions - something that I take for granted. At first, I thought that it must be a cultural thing - the best leaders are the most decisive ones, right? But over the years it's become clear that few business people have any idea how to think beyond the immediate consequences of an action. In fact, many find the idea so alien that it makes them physically uncomfortable. In short, they squirm like a worm under a magnifying glass.

Doesn't anyone play chess any more? Or Monopoly?

The formal process of the 5 Why's was developed by Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota Motor Corporation, to find the root cause of product defects. A shortened version (the 3 Why's) was later all the rage for goal-setting and so on, but then seemed to disappear, even though the root idea is the foundation of any successful organization: constant self-examination.

However many you choose, the Why's lead you to the underlying truth of any process, issue, person, goal, and on and on. They require nothing more than a commitment to acting like the average 3-year-old. Here's an example:


  • We need a new CRM program.
  • Why?
  • Because our old CRM program doesn't help us close enough sales.
  • Why?
  • Because our sales reps don't use it.
  • Why?
  • Because we don't hold them accountable for using it.
  • Why?
  • Because we're afraid that, if we hold them accountable, they might leave.
  • Why?
  • Because we don't know how to lead them properly, and it's hard to do, and we're afraid they'll stop liking us if we do.


The wonderful thing about the question 'Why?' is that it can and always should be asked until it meets bone, because doing anything else is throwing up your hands and admitting that you aren't ready to play at the pro level, and probably never will be. 'Why?' forces you to think as much about the Law of Unintended Consequences as it does about motivation (or the lack thereof).

Here's another:


  • We're going to change this process.
  • Why?
  • Because the old process is inefficient.
  • Why?
  • Because no one has time to do it that way any more.
  • Why?
  • Because they are already spending too much time on another process that we recently changed, but which doesn't seem to be working as well as we'd hoped.
  • Why?
  • Probably because we didn't ask ourselves 'Why?' enough times before making that decision.


Besides telling you the truth, another nice thing about 'Why' is that it's inherently private; no one has to hear you talk yourself out of a bad idea. In fact, if you do it right, you're laying the ground work for rejecting other people's bad ideas by figuring out what's wrong with them (and what the real issue is) in advance.

Don't get me wrong - 'Why?' is not about finding excuses to shoot something down. Any change that is truly needed easily stands up to the scrutiny of 'Why?', plus builds its own framework on the way, no matter how departmentally locked-in things start out:


  • We're going to create and launch an expensive new marketing campaign.
  • Why?
  • Because we have a new product.
  • Why?
  • Because our research indicates that there is room and a need for it in the market.
  • Why?
  • Because it will decrease the amount of time that people have to spend cleaning up pet poop.
  • Why?
  • Because our new product instantly turns any pet poop into biodegradable fertilizer.

Really? Spend away! We're all going to be millionaires!

Remember: Business is not a game. There are sharks everywhere, always, and if you don't learn how to see around the next 3 to 5 corners in advance, you end up as fish food.

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