The Power of Why

photo by walknboston

Like every parent, I am subjected to the question “Why?”  oh, about every 15 minutes or so. Barring “How long until we get there?” it is my son’s favorite question. These days it seems like every statement I make is met by a 4-year-old equivalent of the Inquisition.

The apple apparently doesn’t fall far from the tree – back in the day I tortured my parents the very same way. However, my line of questioning was often blocked by a parental “Because I said so.” As a kid I thought this was a bogus response; as an adult I still think it is. What’s the value in that kind of answer? What do you learn, other than to obey without question? How do you do something with purpose, if you don’t know why?

Knowing that there’s legitimate value behind the question – despite the annoyance of being drilled with it – I try to answer to the best of my abilities whenever asked (whether it’s my kid or my boss). And I still persist in asking that question myself (whether it’s my kid or my boss) whenever I think there’s more to the story than I’ve gotten so far.

The importance of this simple three-letter word was really driven home in a presentation given by George Eid of Area 17 at the Event Design Summit this week. George told us a personal story about the failure to ask why. Nearing completion of a lengthy website project for one of his clients, the CEO sent word that the bar at the top of the webpage needed to be removed; despite the fact that it destroyed the integrity of their visual design, they acquiesced. (After all, the customer is always right, especially if you want to get paid.)

After all was said and done, George asked the client that all-important question: WHY did it need to be removed? Turns out the CEO had just bought a 13-inch MacBook and wanted to be able to see the full page on screen – the part that was hidden was just about the width of that bar

… But when they removed the bar, they only removed the bar; they didn’t shorten the page. Even though they followed direction to the letter, the failure to ask WHY resulted in a failure to meet the customer’s expectations.

As George so eloquently put it,

“Keep asking why. Ask why all the way back to Adam and Eve.”

By continuing to ask why (even to the point of considerable annoyance) we get to the root of the problem, the core of the expectations. It is only by asking why until we are satisfied with the answer that we can move forward from a point of knowing and understanding. It is only by asking why that we can learn enough to truly get it right.

So I’ll take a deep breath and indulge my son’s never-ending why’s. He’s only trying to get a handle on the reasons and expectations so he can get it right.  I can’t really fault him for that.

As for the other question?

“We’ll get there when we get there.”