Yesterday, my 8-year-old son, Nolan, asked me a question about World War II. As I was explaining certain battles and what happened, he cut me off. “Dad, I know what happened, I want to know WHY they did it.” He had many questions and all of them dealt with why generals and leaders made the choice they did. That opened up a discussion about how to make hard choices and what he would do if he faced a hard decision.

He left with a “Thanks dad. That makes sense now.” And with that, he was off to explore Legos.

I have been in hundreds, maybe thousands of meetings where teams get together and discuss what is happening and what we are going to do about what is happening. Reviewed the numbers and the data, what the team was doing, or not doing, what the numbers were, what they should be and what we were going to do about it.

Sometimes, we even tried to determine whose fault it was that numbers were what they were.

I have been involved in meetings where we discussed what kind of culture we wanted to create, what we stood for and what we going to do to get our culture and mission statement into the hearts of our employees.

Most of these meetings were not very effective.

This is because we are asking the wrong question. We need to start asking “Why” instead of “What.”

Why builds ownership, not more programs. Why will change your team. It is the question that changes the world.

As a leader, you need to be as relentless as a 3 year old asking “Why, Why, Why.

Why is your most powerful tool. If people understand the “WHY”, they can create the “WHAT.” If they don’t, the best you can hope for is enthusiastic compliance where the momentum only lasts as long as you keep them pumped up. Why allows you to know if they understand the vision, and how to build alignment

Here are a couple of examples:

  • If the team understands that you are cutting a project to put resources into a much faster growing division, a negative event all of a sudden looks like a growth opportunity.
  • If a leader understands you are moving her to a “lower-profile” position because only she can build this vital division correctly, it takes on a whole new significance. No one will outwork her.
  • If you don’t understand what is going on. Asking why allows you to hear people’s thought progress, their passion and how they got where they are. This involves listening more, talking less.

Culture is created through answering “Why”, not What.What we do is the visible of proof of how we answer why. Spending time on why we make the choices is harder, more time-consuming and can be more abstract to measure. By the way, answering the “WHY” is REAL the job of a leader. No one else is measured on why.

I think that is why many people and organization spend so much time on the what.

  1. It is easier to move the deck chairs around than ask why we have a deck in the first place.
  2. Measuring the “What” is easier than the Why. We are a bit data obsessed. It harder, not impossible, but harder to measure the impact of Why we do what we do in the first place.
  3. We never seem to have enough time to deal with Why. It is easier to put a couple more programs together or measure data than it is to measure impact and progress.
  4. People’s comp plans are usually ties to outputs of what.

The result is that we only deal with why at the beginning, when we change leaders and when the wheels are coming off the bus.

In truth, Why establishes the targets you are aiming at. Without it, programs all become self-serving where campaigns exist only to reach a certain return rate, not are we actually reaching the people we intend to reach.

What measures metrics. Why measures Impact and progress. We have to make more time for this. Otherwise, work and busy work begin to look the same.

I would recommend:

  1. Lay out your vision and why your organization even exists. Then your people can buy in, take ownership of this and begin to drive their teams and programs toward this vision.
  2. Spend time to make sure people understand the why behind the decisions you are making. This will help make sure all of your activity is aimed at the same target. This is vital as you are asking people to change behavior.
  3. Allow people to question which activities actually have greatest impact to moving you to the goals.
  4. Be willing to sacrifice programs if they don’t align to why. That builds culture more than 100 ping-pong tables ever will.
  5. Eliminate the meetings where you simply discuss data and outputs. Most of this information can be sent via e-mail. Use this data to drive your “Why” meetings. A bunch of meetings can go away right there.

Momentum is a group of people moving in a direction. Why is like turning on the lights and making sure everyone is running at the same target. They will feel more secure. No one runs fast in the dark.

The paradox is that the quality and efficiency of the “what” will actually improve tremendously the more clarity your team or family has concerning the “Why.”