Why ask why?

My mom has a running family joke that the first word I ever spoke was “Why?” I can’t ever really figure out if it’s a compliment — a celebration of natural curiosity, and a bent to wanting to know the nature of things, not just what they are, but why they are — or if it’s a bit of frustration about my predilection toward questioning the status quo — the other running family joke is that I’d argue with a signpost. I suspect it’s both — but maybe a bit more of the latter than the former.

I’ve been thinking a lot for the last few months about the (not-so) secrets to successful organizations. How they are led, how they are managed, maybe more importantly, how each person in the organization adds to it. The thoughts I have are most likely not all that original, but that doesn’t stop a whole cottage industry that writes leadership and management books.

I finally caught up on my Dilbert feeds yesterday, and the comic from 11/04/2007 has Wally saying:

“It’s better to have the right person ask the wrong question than the wrong person ask the right question”

That’s certainly been true in every organization I’ve been in — outside of my immediate work team. You might think that surprising for an University. But Universities are as bureaucratic as they come. One difference is that you don’t get fired for being the wrong person asking the question, you just get ignored.

Thankfully, almost every team I’ve been a part of directly has been the complete opposite of this. And maybe I have a little bit of rose-colored glasses involved, but I think that every team that I’ve worked with has had success in the domains in which that team had direct influence over. And one of attributes of each one of those teams is that the team members, not just me were a) oriented to asking “why?” and b) “why?” was absolutely encouraged on the part of the team leadership.

Let me pull that out again. One of the attributes of successful teams is that the leaders and members of the team strongly encourage the question “Why?”

“Why?” is a tough question. No one really relishes having their work questioned, not in the moment at least. But the individuals and teams that have the most success come to welcome the “why” questions from others, and to ask the questions themselves. “Why are we doing this?”, “Why did we do it that way?”, and best of all “Why don’t we try this?” The questions encourage curiosity, they gets teams communicating, they zero in on the things that matter, either to the team or the individual. If you can’t answer the “why?” questions — you aren’t ready to do what you are doing, whatever that may be.

That’s not to say that “why?” always has a definitive answer. The answer could be “because I have gut instinct about this, trust me” And that’s perfectly acceptable, especially when you have a track record for having answers to the “why” questions that have built that trust prior to now. Sometimes the answers to the “why” questions also require a common knowledge base, and if you ask those questions, and don’t have that knowledge, you better be willing to learn it (and those being asked better be willing to teach it).

It is never acceptable to ignore the “why” question or to play the “because I said so” card, or worse the “who are you to be asking this question” stance.

I am so very thankful that the managers (leaders) — I’ve had at the University, particularly Bill Padgett and Kevin Gamble accepted the why questions, often encouraging and outright expecting these questions both of their staffs, and themselves. It didn’t always make fans out of others on campus that didn’t care for the questions, but it sure has created loyalty and success within the individuals and teams on their staff.