Ask not ‘how’, ask ‘why’

Potential clients frequently come to me because they want to do something. They might want to restructure their organisation. Or to develop and implement a new strategy. Or to streamline the delivery of a particular service. In such cases, I have two options available to me. The first will get my clients what they want. But the second will get them what they need.

Option 1 is to take what the client wants to do and to start thinking about how they can do it. So if they want to streamline the delivery of their homelessness prevention service, for example, I can explore how the service currently works, what the challenges and bottlenecks are, and how these can be overcome. And with time and a bit of effort, we can work together to make these changes happen.

This approach will give the client what they want. But will it give them what they need? Probably not.

Option 2 is to take what the client wants to do and to ask them why they want to do it. So, and to continue with my homelessness prevention example, I’ll ask them why they want to streamline the service. They might say that it’s because they’re not housing the number of people they need to. I’ll ask them why they’re not housing the number of people they need to. They might say that it’s because there aren’t enough properties available in the local area.

I’d probably ask at this stage how streamlining the service will increase the number of available properties. And they’d probably admit that, actually, it won’t.

By asking ‘why’ rather than ‘how’, I’ve saved my client from taking a course of action that would have cost them considerable time and money, but that would have failed singularly to address the issue at hand. I’ve also helped them to identify what the issue at hand actually is, which opens the door to a project that might actually help to make things better.

The situation I’ve described is what consulting guru Alan Weiss is getting at when he says that asking ‘why’ creates more value, whereas asking ‘how’ creates less. In purely practical terms, I think of it as unleashing my inner five-year-old. Why? Why? Why? It’s even spawned a bona fide management technique, though I can’t help but think that this might be taking things too far.

However you think about it, though, the idea of asking ‘why’, not ‘how’, isn’t just about consultancy projects. It can be applied to any time we’re considering a particular course of action, whether that’s at work or in some other aspect of our lives.

Say, for example, you decide you want to buy a new car. You could focus on the ‘how’ and get down to your local Ford or Toyota or Mercedes or whatever dealership, look through the ads in the back of the local paper, or get onto one of those car-buying websites.

Alternatively, you could take a moment to ask yourself why you want to buy a new car. It might, of course, be that your old car has died and you desperately need another one. But it might be that there’s actually something deeper going on. A sense of dissatisfaction with some aspect of your life, for example, or issues with your self-esteem. And a new car probably won’t resolve that.

So next time you’re considering a course of action, don’t just jump into the ‘how’. Take a moment first to ask ‘why’. Because it’s a sure-fire way of getting to the heart of the matter. And of getting you not what you want, but what you need.

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