For many leaders, solving a problem can take an inordinate amount of time and resources, and more often than not we find that we’ve been focused more solving the problem at hand (or at least, as much of the problem as we can see or easily identify), rather than understanding why it’s a problem in the first place. Because of this “band-aid mentality”, we stay focused on the symptoms that have arisen—the visible problem—and not on actually addressing the root cause. This lack of a root cause analysis—a formal term for asking “why”—leads to challenges of its own over time.
Intellectual leader Albert Einstein was once quoted as saying, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” For him, the solution was the easy part; the harder portion was determining what comprised the problem itself.
Nowhere is this better captured than in the scenario about the Jefferson Memorial and the Five Whys. If you aren’t familiar with it, here’s a quick breakdown for you.
At one point in recent history, the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. was crumbling—to the point of large blocks of cement almost falling and injuring a tourist. No other monuments were affected, so they decided to launch an investigation. This initial investigation came back with a result: that the cleaners used to clean the monument were combining with jet fuel from the National airport nearby and causing it to erode faster than usual. As a quick (but expensive) solution, the committee decided the only logical solution was to…move the airport.
Fortunately, someone more familiar with why “Why” is important stepped in and, to make a long story short, found that the monument was cleaned more often than other memorials due to the excess in bird droppings, which were left there because of a surplus of spiders, who fed on the gnats that came out at night because of the lights at the monument. In the end, the park staff decided to turn the lights off an hour earlier, reducing the bugs, spiders, birds, droppings, and cleanings, and allowing the monument a less-rigorous cleaning schedule.
As a result, asking “why” saved taxpayers billions of dollars in airport relocation…as well as a discounted electric bill and hefty exterminator costs.
With that example, it seems easy: why aren’t we all focused on why? And the answer is, sadly, very simple. Data.
Now, data can be either quantitative (fact-based) or qualitative (based on the surrounding qualities). And in the corporate world, there is no shortage of either. But while we might think that quantitative data is what we need to solve our businesses’ problems, the reality is that we are so often inundated with quantitative data that we no longer look at the Why.
Don’t believe me? Consider this: In the situation above, the quantitative data was there—the jet fuel was mixing with the cleaning agent. There was more than enough information to consider that a solid decision, and yet simply digging into the problem a bit more to find out “why” led to a much safer, faster and cheaper option.
It’s hard to ask why, but increasingly important, because digging into “why” gives us usable data that we can use to solve the actual problem—not just the one we see. But it’s not just this information kickback that makes it so valuable.
In the corporate environment, learning to ask WHY first can be a solid tactic that is far more useful than simply for decision-making and problem-solving. In fact, in his book Start with Why, author Simon Sinek notes that it is the WHY that, when implemented fully in our companies and organizations, allows our employees to do their best work, and find what really inspires them. In short, the WHY isn’t just for the bean counters and C-suites. It’s for HR, sales, and leadership at every level, too.
Our problem today is that our why gets lost. We get muddled in the data are moving too fast to consider what else might be hiding among it. To get to a higher level—in business and in our organizational relationships—we have to slow down and find the why first.
While understanding how to get to the WHY is far more complex than we can go into here, we will be covering it at length in future resources, and we’d like to invite you back as we dive deeper. If you’re interested in following along, make sure you sign up for updates so we can keep you in the loop.