Don’t ask Why!

Thinking about the future is good.

Planning and reflecting, setting goals and pondering about capabilities and strengths – also good. Playing to the deep trends of optimizing everyone’s achievements and inspired by bestseller books, many are developing their “Why”: the innermost motivation and most powerful drivers to leave a mark in the world.

In the context of business, any change or dynamic will also be driven by a “Why”, a goal substantiated by some form of business case driving financial benefits or other types of improvement.

When businesspeople are interacting with clients to develop new joint opportunities, understanding this particular type of “Why” is sought for like the Holy Grail. It bears different labels such as Burning Platform, Core Business Problem, etc. The understanding is preferably with rich and individually differentiated details, enabling solution development and sales messaging to fit the requirement.

No matter what type of product or service you are taking to market, there must be a problem to solve or a need to fill. The Burning Platform is helping you identify what that problem/need is. And the logical thing seems to be to approach the client and ask: “Why are you XXX?” replacing XXX with whatever corporate improvement program you can think of (reduce cost, grow revenue, reduce risk, etc).

However, posing this particular question: “Why are you …..?” is unlikely to give you a meaningful answer (and it might even be considered rude) for a number of reasons:

  • When we are asked Why we do things, we’ll examine the causes of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. The human mind is prone to look for the easiest, most plausible answer and once that is found: to stop looking.  The answer is therefore likely to be obvious tending towards the banal, eg: We are reducing costs to become more competitive. Doh!
  • Having to answer Why can have a negative impact on mental wellbeing. Responding to a Why-question can cause respondents (in this context: your clients!) to fixate on their problems and look for ways to place blame.
  • A person responding to a Why-question is likely to see situations from a victim’s point of view, rationalizing and justifying the addressed problem, explaining it away.

What, then, should we ask to explore the client’s thinking? Exactly that.

Ask “What” in stead of “Why” and you’ll see a different behavior and response quality. A “What” question (as in, eg: “What’s going on?”. “What’s the outcome you want to see?”, “What is the type of business you are now pursuing?”) will keep your client’s mind open to discover new information, even if this new information is negative or even in conflict with existing beliefs. What-questions are generating high-value discovery and potential solutions from the conversation.

“Why” questions stir negative emotions, draw focus to our limitations and puts the spotlight on the past; “What” questions keep us curious, help us see potential and look to the future.

Exceptions exist, of course: in some situations, you need to know every painful detail of the past (root cause analysis of operational failures, product launch failures etc). But for a business conversation trying to open up new opportunities based on insight into a Burning Platform, this is not what you need.