Should we ever ask why?

Multicolored arrows aiming outward in a circle from a question markIn my last post, I made the point that “why” questions can sound accusing and put people on the defensive – especially if the situation is tense to begin with.

And that’s true.

But this doesn’t mean you should never ask “why” questions. Sometimes they’re the exact right question to ask.

In fact, sometimes “why?” is a really important question to ask.

Why are you doing that?

If I’ve learned anything in my years of self-employment, it’s to always check why I’m choosing to do something.

It’s all too easy for me to grab onto a shiny new idea – whether it’s a program I suddenly want to develop, or a new technology tool I discover – and think that THIS is THE thing I should be doing.

I’d be willing to bet you’ve done that on occasion, whether in your career or your personal life.

The problem – as I’m sure you can see – is that we can quickly get sucked into a significant detour away from where we really want to go.

So ask yourself and your team why you’re undertaking a particular initiative. Does it align with your strategic direction, at the team, department, and/or organizational level?

If it doesn’t, and you have control over whether the initiative should be undertaken, consider either modifying it, or tossing it out altogether.

If it’s outside your control and you have the type of relationship with your boss that makes this sort of pushback possible, I highly recommend asking, “Why are we doing this, again?”

By the way, it’s useful to review all ongoing and repetitive tasks from this perspective. If you ask “why are we doing this?”, you may well find that there are things you can stop doing. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Why are you spending so much time?

Are you familiar with the Pareto Principle? As the Wikipedia article says, this idea – also known as the 80/20 rule – states that 80% of your results come from 20% of your effort.

So don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. (Apparently so many people have said this that no one knows who said it first.)

Almost everyone has at least some perfectionism in their personality. If a particular task or project is dragging out, or you and your team are starting to feel cranky and resentful about getting to the finish line, it’s time to ask why you’re continuing to spend time on it.

I’m not advocating for sloppiness, incompleteness, or poor quality in any way. And some projects just have to keep on going.

But is this one good enough as is?


These are my two top answers to the “can we ever ask why?” question.

Do you have other examples? Drop me a note and let me know – they might show up in a future post!

gljudson Strategic thinking