When to ask Why

In school, I would have pulled a stunt like this.  Actually, one time in college, I had to write four or five papers in one class.  I liked the professor, but I was certain he did not read any of the papers required.  Ok, maybe he read the first two and last two pages, but no more than that.  I had traditionally done very well on papers in his class, making an A every time, maybe a couple of points off for a poor reference or such.  For my last paper, I thought I would be a little daring and attempt to prove my point.  So, about halfway through the paper, mid paragraph, I inserted the following line: “And I know you’re not reading any of this,” before continuing the paragraph as normal.  I just knew I had done it.

The point to my story is, sometimes in a job, a project, or a proposal, I still find myself thinking, “Why am I doing this? They’re not even going to read it.”  Or sometimes, the statement might be said by a leader: “I know this is stupid, but we have to ask that you _____.”  This has always baffled me.  In essence, you acknowledge the stupidity of what your requesting someone to do, but still demand it?  Why?

Companies who enjoy the tediousness of their processes often do not enjoy great margins.  One company I consulted not too long ago explained their process of approval for a specific area.  They drew flow charts and showed me all of the pretty forms they had made that went into this massive binder with a pretty little cover sheet.  So after sitting through that meeting which lasted about 35 minutes (35 minutes of my life I’ll never get back), they asked me what I thought.  My reply?  “What are we talking about again?”

No, seriously, I went up to their great little flow chart and began simply asking “Why?”  For instance, why do three people have to sign this form authorizing an expense?  Answer: “To be sure it’s really needed.” Question: “Are these managers who have to sign it?” Answer: “Yes, three managers up the chain have to sign it.  Do you think we could make it easier?”  Answer from me: “Yes, fire the one who’s stupid or inept.”

Ok, I know that was pretty harsh but think about it for a minute: You have three people signing off on something that at least two people should be able to do.  Why the 3rd?  Granted, there are some instances where, depending on an expense amount or credit amount that there needs to be some extra checks and balances, but in this case, it was for something fairly nominal.  This sneak peek into the business model showed me a larger problem.  Why was I there?  To help accelerate the sales process.  What was the problem?  This company loved to make X very hard to find!

One question you as a manager can ask to drill down to the essentials of just about any function within your company is “why?” In fact, as a leader, you should ask more questions than give answers.  If you are consistently providing answers, you are doing two awful things to your company.

#1. You’re wasting your future time.  The old adage regarding a horse and water has a lot of truth to it.  If you are consistently giving answers out, you are, in essence, training your team not to think for themselves.  They know if they run into a question, rather than seeking the answer, they can just come to the great think tank who will spit out an answer or better yet, fix the problem all together.  This wastes your future time because you are not eliminating future questions.  If your team is anything like those I’ve managed in the past, you get asked the same questions time and time again.  Asking the question why can be as simple to start as, why am I answering this question?  Direct your associate to the answer, but let them figure it out on their own.  This will free up future time when they have another question.

#2. If you don’t ask why, you will never make great leaps in your company.  If you have a process in place, ask yourself and your team why you do it that way.  Is there a better, more cost effective or more efficient way of doing it?  Can you make it easier for your clients?  Also, in turn, you create a culture of excellence on your team because as time progresses, your team will begin to ask why and think outside the box.

Now, it should be said you will not get a lot of friends going this route, but, who needs friends when there’s progress to be made right?  Always seeking excellence sometimes means you will have to ask the occasional question, “Why?”

Oh, and about the paper I mentioned earlier in the article… I got it back and made my first B.  I got some points knocked off for trivial things.  I got 12 points taken off with a note from my professor, “I took 12 points off for assuming I don’t read these.”  He was a great teacher!

Trent Cotton has spent a number of years in management and business consulting. After spending some time in the field, he joined the HR department, beginning in recruiting and eventually serving as the Department Head of HR for one of the major lines of business. With such a varied background, he works to bring all of these together to help organizations incorporate best practices into their business to help them succeed. In his free time, he also writes a lot on his other blog, Christian Men, Christian Warrior.

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