The Enliven! Blog

Helping Harness Human Capacity


I recall a play I was in during Grade 3. I was a magician. One of my key lines was “Questions, questions, whose got the question?”, or words to that effect.

I recently encountered two good articles about questions. One of them, written by a pastor, suggested that a healthy organization needs to get down to brass tacks and ask the “why” questions. Another article, by a team facilitator, suggested that “why” questions close down conversation and that “what” and “how” questions are better for provoking discussion.

Both observations are true in my experience. I believe, however, that the “why” questions are the highest form of inquiry. I agree that they can be difficult and they can turn people away. Are there ways to ask “why” which are accessible to those of us who don’t consider ourselves philosophers or deep thinkers? “How” does one ask the “why” questions?

Let me suggest some practical ways to ask the “why questions”. One set of questions proceeds from the rational brain. A business or service might ask “What is our value proposition?” If a tutoring organization, for example, identifies its value proposition as providing a high quality teaching service to help students who fall through the cracks, it has identified at least part of its “why”. This definition may be further sharpened by contrasting its value propositions with those of similar organizations. For example, the tutoring service may choose to provide its services to new immigrants, as opposed to non-immigrant clients.

Another way to get at “why” rationally is to ask “What is the reason we exist?” Or, “If we weren’t a player in the field, what would the game be missing? A camp, for example, might identify that it is the only camp near a major population centre which offers an overnight campout experience. The rational approach can also lead to questioning assumptions. Is the stated purpose still relevant, sufficient, meaningful?

The rational act of clarification can also be helpful in answering the “why” question. What is not our “why”? The camp above might identify that it is not in the family camp business. Another clarification is to discern which category of human endeavour an organization is pursuing. Is the organization, for example, a social service or a business. If it is a social service, does the organization relate to families or individuals? Identifying the customer segments one serves can also cast light on the “why”. Is the local medical clinic primarily serving the needs of the local people, or the province? And it can be helpful to separate “what” and “how” from “why” we do what we do. The clinic may use the best in technology and have good collegial relations, but as a medical clinic it is still about providing for the health needs of the community.

The emotional brain also offers a unique perspective on “why”. The question “what was the passion at the beginning of our operation?” can open up a connection to the deeply held motives of the founders. A church, for example, might have been founded as a renewal effort focusing on education and outreach. The related question “what is the passion now” night lead to new discoveries. Perhaps that same church is now, in fact, passionate about worship. And moving to the non verbal side of the equation, what does the logo say about purpose? Why, for example, does the Tim Horton’s logo, which could be described as outdated, communicate so well that the purpose of the store is to provide a refreshing break for a legitimate treat?

Other emotional approaches might include examining the story of the organization. Where has it shifted direction, or run aground, or thrived? Where has it taken key decisions? These may relate to the “why” question.

Perhaps the “why” question is uncomfortable because it touches on values and idealism. But values are foundational to any enterprise. Schools, for example, must believe in helping children grow. That is not to say that we don’t need a dose of reality to make our “why’s” attainable. We may not be able to give each child all the gadgets that assist education, but we can enthuse them about learning in a loving environment.

The “why” question may shut down conversation in a setting where quick answers are needed. But it is essential for the health of an organization. What are some other ways of asking “why”?

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