The power of why
This article was written by Benjamin Davison.
We all know what we do and how we do it. But do we know why we do what we do? As a culture, we are not predisposed to deep, thoughtful reflections about why things are the way they are. We prefer to examine questions like, “how can we be more efficient?” and “what is the most cost-effective way to do this?” We even spend countless hours squabbling over where things will happen: should we work from home, or at the office? Asking why seems…silly, maybe even childlike. But that is not the case. There is a lot of value in asking why. Many would argue that why is one of the most powerful questions you can ask. Contemporary philosopher Simon Sinek tells us that asking why you do what you do and using that answer as a driver will help distinguish your business from less thoughtful competitors. It might seem like a toddler-level cognitive trick, but relentlessly asking why is an excellent way to develop a deeper understanding of your actions, your business, and even your life, especially as you begin your entrepreneurial journey.
What is why?
What are we actually asking when we ask the question “why?” Asking why is an effort to understand the reason that a thing is how it is. In the context of entrepreneurship and business, asking why is a way to ascertain what the purpose of your enterprise actually is. But who cares? Why should we agonize over what the deeper purpose of our business is? Isn’t it self-evident that the purpose of a business is to make money? Apart from a few charities and not-for-profits, nobody works for free, so the purpose of any business has to be to make money – right?
It is certainly valid to argue that the purpose of a business enterprise is to make money. But is that the only reason your business exists? Do you really want to run every single aspect of your business with the ultimate goal of collecting as much money as possible? Would you want to do business with a company that exists only to convert your money into their money? Does that kind of purpose drive good behavior, or does it drive avaricious or even criminal behaviors designed to extract as much cash as possible from the customer? If the only “why” of your business is to make money, you may be surprised to find it struggling to stay afloat as it ages.
How can this be? Why would any business that is exclusively focused on turning a profit fail? The answer to that question is deceptively simple: the world does not, in fact, revolve around profit. Employees and customers are human beings who may not share your specific profit motive. Chances are, they are motivated by an entirely different set of incentives and criteria. If you were building a new home, would you prefer to do business with a contractor who builds houses because he finds personal satisfaction in solid craftsmanship, or do you want a contractor who builds houses because he wants to buy himself a new boat and a new truck to tow it with? Which contractor do you think is likely to do better work? Which contractor is going to cut costs to maximize profits, and how is that going to affect your home? Which purpose motivates better behavior? Avarice does not drive good or ethical behavior. Greed is not generally a good customer-retention strategy.
The assumption of causality
We humans like to assume that things have a cause-and-effect relationship. We assume that we will be successful if we work hard, or that eating right will make us healthier. Buddhists call this notion causality. If a thing is, something made it so. For instance, you might be covered in dog hair because your dog is shedding, and your dog is shedding because it’s hot. In the context of business and entrepreneurship, we assume that processes, cultures, and products exist at the end of a chain of causality. So, if we see a paper process or a specific policy, we assume that there is a valid reason for its existence. But is there? Just because a reason exists doesn’t mean that it’s a good reason. Questioning assumptions is an important step in developing a better understanding of why you are doing the things you’re doing. A simple way to question assumptions is to ask why. Why do we still make customers do this paper process? Why do we have this specific policy about socks? Is this aligned with our core purpose in any meaningful way?
Sometimes, this kind of inquest will reveal that things do have a sensible reason for existing as they do. More often, you are likely to find that things are how they are for no particularly good reason. That process? Someone designed it in 1973 and we just never bothered to think about it again. Sometimes, it seems, businesses and ideas evolve in random directions for no discernible cause. Things seem to just happen a certain way. It might be comforting to think that your average entrepreneur or businessperson understands why they are doing things, but there’s a good chance that they’ve never really evaluated why they’re doing their thing.
Asking why might seem like an aggravating exercise. This is especially true if you happen to be questioning the why behind the actions of an authority figure. As it turns out, people do not enjoy having their assumptions challenged. One of the earliest humans to ask the question of why with persistence and purpose was the ancient philosopher Socrates. Socrates’ habit of questioning everything and seeking deeper answers than the surface-level ones he got eventually led him to understand that he knew nothing; more importantly, it helped him learn that other people also knew nothing. Socrates’ habit of asking questions and then questioning answers did not endear him to the wider population of ancient Greece. His repeated, in-depth questioning of people’s answers invariably revealed people to be operating under sets of unchecked or unexamined assumptions. Unable to articulate why they believed in certain ideas or behaved in certain ways, people suffered from a form of cognitive dissonance that caused feelings of stress and anxiety. Eventually, Socrates’ toddler-like questioning of everybody and everything grew tiresome for the people around him, and they sentenced him to death for being annoying. Your boss isn’t likely to hand you a mug of hemlock if you ask him why the company is doing things a certain way, but you might well get a wary look or even a stern warning. Ask too many questions and you might find yourself looking for a new job. In many ways, the people of today are not so different from the people of antiquity.
Regardless of whether people find it annoying, asking why is a critical exercise for any self-starter or entrepreneur. It is arguably a good exercise for those of us on salary, too. You don’t even have to ask your boss: you can begin by questioning your own personal assumptions and motives. Why do you work at this company? Why do you work as hard as you do? Why do you want to start up a new company? Why do you want to enter a specific sector? When you answer these questions, ask yourself again: why? To truly emulate the Socratic spirit of philosophical inquiry, you must continue to question your assumptions until you hit whatever your own philosophical bedrock is.
One of the most jarring things about this exercise is that you might discover that you do not have the rock-solid reasons for doing things that you think you do. It is entirely possible that you’re operating on a set of assumptions that do not compare favorably with reality, or that your why doesn’t really match your what. It’s entirely possible that you do not have a concrete answer to the question of why. Self-reflection is not something that is trained into us by the American education system, and it is certainly not something that the average corporation encourages their employees to do. Many of us in the cubicle farms are adrift in a tranquil sea of purposeless work, grinding it out for that paycheck without thinking about the why.
Modern philosophers to the rescue
Philosophy, often maligned by those who prefer more concrete cognitive arts, continues to explore the question of why. Contemporary society places a high value on things like economics, finance, and business. Humanities, especially the kind that lead people to ask bothersome questions, are viewed as a waste of time and resources. Anybody who has pursued a philosophy degree has probably been asked if they’d like fries with their degree or endured other forms of mockery. Regardless, modern philosophers apply their mastery of the cognitive arts to examine questions of why we engage in certain behaviors or believe certain things. The author, optimist, and de facto philosopher Simon Sinek is one of the most popular contemporary voices encouraging people to ask questions. Sinek’s TED talk on the power of why has almost nine million views on YouTube.
In his most famous work, Start With Why, Sinek posits that business leaders should be asking why far more often than they do. Why should be a foundational question of business analysis. Instead of asking “how can we be more efficient” or “how can we return more value to the shareholders,” business leaders should be asking questions like why are customers loyal to some brands and not others? Why is it so hard to replicate success? Why is the market shifting? Why are customers behaving in a certain way?
As it turns out, questions like these tend to have complex answers that require expensive innovations or changes in the way we practice business. As such your average career-minded middle manager won’t touch them with a ten-foot pole. In a delightful twist of irony, the business world is full of leaders who spend their days explaining why not to the staff: we won’t be making that change because it would cost money, or because someone in senior leadership is too stodgy and out-of-touch to embrace the world as it is. Instead of analyzing the reasons behind their actions, they explain the reasons that their actions will never change. How many of us have listened to the boss explain why we won’t be getting a raise, why the company won’t be replacing that ancient and unreliable software, or why nobody is getting a promotion? The fact that many of our leaders spend their days justifying why they shouldn’t take action to improve things stems directly from the fact that their own personal why is not reflective of any deep or meaningful goal: their actions show us that their existence is focused entirely on self-promotion and career growth, not on some deep or meaningful sense of purpose. The why of your average business leader is not aligned with the alleged why of the business itself.
This is unfortunate. A little self-reflection and critical thinking can help anybody. According to Sinek, taking the time to stop and reflect on why you are engaged in the business you’re in is the best way to develop a roadmap to success. Reflecting on your why helps you develop a specific, concrete goal to guide your actions and decisions. Why are you doing what you do? If your reason for working is to help people, you need to make sure your actions and the actions of your company work toward that goal. If you’re working because you want to be the best at what you do, make sure your devotion to excellence shows in everything you do. If you’re in business to lift your community, make sure your actions reflect that. Use your why as your lodestar. As Sinek points out, if you don’t know why you’re doing something, it’s difficult to tell if you’re doing it well.
Contemplating your why is only going to be effective if you take the exercise seriously. Giving a glib answer or coming up with a half-baked reason over your 10 AM coffee might technically “check the box” of asking why, but this exercise does not work if you are not sincere. You must take the time to sit, reflect, and think. Ideally, you should write your thoughts out. The process of writing and putting words to paper (or pixels to your Word doc) helps you process your thoughts in a new way. Start by answering questions like these:
- Why does my company exist?
- Why am I in this business?
- Why do I like (or dislike) what I do?
- Why should I make an effort in this work?
- Why should customers choose me over someone else?
- Why should business partners work with me?
- Why have other businesses in this sector been successful? Why have they failed?
These are hard questions, but they are worthy of consideration. A little bit of introspection and critical thinking will help you develop a deeper understanding of the reasons you do what you do. Taking the time to reflect in a sincere manner about your reasons for doing what you do will help you thrive in a whole new way.
The tactical uses of why
Asking the question why has applicable, tactical business uses. Anybody who has experienced a business disaster or worked in industries like healthcare or manufacturing is familiar with the concept of the root cause analysis. The root cause analysis is, at its core, a Socratic exercise in asking why. To perform a root-cause analysis, you examine a situation and continue to ask why things happened the way they did until you strike a base layer of causality, the root from which the problem in question was nourished. Once you have identified the root problem, you will almost always find that it stems from a disconnect from the organization’s why. This author witnessed a sentinel event in a hospital many years ago; the root cause of the event was that the nursing unit was severely understaffed and nurses were not able to adequately provide care for their patients. Why were they short-staffed? Because hospital executives were making staffing decisions based on financial metrics even though the why of the hospital is to provide excellent patient care, not to turn a huge profit. Why were they doing that? Because that is how they were trained to think. The people in charge were not prepared to be aligned with non-financial goals, and as a result they created an environment incompatible with their core purpose. A thoughtful organization can learn from events like this and reorient to their core purpose; the hospital in question simply fired the nurses involved and settled with the patient’s family out of court. That hospital is still not oriented to their why, and it is likely that patients there are still suffering as a result of it.
Embrace your why
While a failure to adhere to the why in your business might not lead to death or dismemberment, it is likely to lead to problems with your reputation, or with customer and employee retention. It’s easy to lose sight of the reasons for what you do in the hectic bustle of everyday life. None of us is perfect, and no business will ever be able to perfectly align all aspects with its purpose. But it is worth trying. It is worth asking why you do things, defining your purpose, and taking the time to line up your practice and your purpose. So go out there and do some navel-gazing. Take a walk and look at the clouds. Think about what you do, and then think about why you do it. Once you find your why, think about whether your actions and your purpose are aligned, and if they’re not, ask: why not? Embrace your inner three-year-old. Be relentlessly inquisitive. Find your why.