90 Percent

Project management, productivity, change management, and more!

One of the most important question ever


There is one question that can be asked over and over again and yet, it never gets old. It’s simple, short, efficient…but what is it?

It’s: “Why?“.

I hope you’re not disappointed 🙂

It’s actually a very important question, and yet, usually, it’s not asked, therefore, it’s not answered. Here I will focus around productivity and the context of project management but keep in mind that this question can apply to every situation of your life.

Why to ask it

By asking the question, you are forced to answer it. By doing so, you make sure that what you are about to do has meaning, has a purpose, has a goal, etc. It makes sure you are on the right path.

Ignore it, and you will have a hard time reaching your goals, or your project’s goals.

When to ask it

When a suggestion is given, or a decision is being considered, the question “why?” should be asked. Often people will suggest ideas, and will even be very persuasive when suggesting it, and yet, when you ask them “why should we do this?”, you will receive poor quality answers like: Isn’t it obvious?, because it’s cool, everybody does it, I think people will like it”.

Another situation is that a team will make a decision, but then you ask the famous question…. and everyone mutters words here and there, but nobody knows why it should be done, they were just happy to do it, but they find out it would not help the project at all.

What the answer should show you

The answer for the question “Why?” should confirm if the idea, the decision, or anything else serves it’s purpose. Remember that time is money, and in your project’s budget, I’m certain you did not include a budget for “doing things with no reason”. It gives meaning and value to what is being said.

It may also show that even though it’s a good idea, it’s not coherent with the project’s goals, therefore, you should find something else. For example, you may find out by asking “why should we add a contest on our website?” that it will drive new traffic to the website, but if the goal of the new promotion is to get users to stay longer on the website, then the idea is not the right one. If you do not ask “Why?”, you may skip that valuable thinking, do your contest, and find out that the users still leave your website within 30 seconds. Generally, it’s after that failed attempt that people ask “Why didn’t it work?”. Instead of wasting time and money by asking the question after, ask “Why should we do it?” before!

In conclusion

Simple: ask the question often, it’s important, reveals a lot, and also, it’s free!

5 thoughts on “One of the most important question ever

  1. I must refer you to the “5 Whys” technique which, as you might have guessed, exploits all the power of “asking why” with an easy and concise process: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/5_Whys

    Long story short, it’s more beneficial to question about a problem’s cause or the explanation behind a situation over multiple iterations to understand more precisely the root cause of what was first observed.

    E.g. :

    Why #1 – “Why Johnny did fall into the well? Because he leaned to look down into the well and slipped.”
    Why #2 – “Why was Johnny able to look down into the well? Because the fence around the well wasn’t locked properly.”
    Why #3 – “Why was the fence around the well not locked properly? Because Bob didn’t lock it last night.”
    Why #4 – “Why Bob didn’t lock the fence last night? Because he was tired and forgot that step in his end-of-day list of tasks.”
    Why #5 – “Why Bob did forget that step in his end-of-day list of tasks? Because he keeps that list in his mind.”

    If we only stopped at asking the first “Why?”, our only action would have been to warn Johnny not to look down into a well. However, by asking the question five times, we are now also able to suggest to Bob the well owner that he upgrades the fence with an automatic timer lock and to keep a TODO checklist next to his bed with all the steps he needs to follow at the end of the day.

    • Hi Charles,

      Do you really believe that the 5 Whys is applicable/practical in the real world? Imagine that you’re managing a project, and you’re asking those 5 whys to one of your resources – most likely by question #3 he’s going to go crazy and either leave the conference room or go very aggressive.

      The 5 Whys only work during brainstorming sessions among peers – other than that, it’s a completely annoying practice that many resources would think of it as insulting.

      • @PMHut, I think you bring an interesting point. In my opinion, if you are going to use this “technique”, it’s important to do the following:
        1- explain it to colleagues first, so that they know what you are doing, and therefore avoid negative reception on their parts; and
        2- no technique should be used “as-is” all the time, I think we have to keep the idea in mind and keep asking several times “why?”, but maybe stop before 5 depending of the context.

        What do you think?

      • Hi PM,

        I do not believe I have suggested to apply the 5 Whys as a one-on-one or a many-on-one interrogation technique. I think it is quite obvious that doing such a thing would irritate many people. I’d call this a lack of empathy before calling it a flaw on the 5 Whys side!

        Quoting myself, the point behind the 5W is : “it’s more beneficial to question about a problem’s cause or the explanation behind a situation over multiple iterations to understand more precisely the root cause of what was first observed.”

        I’m sure the original author behind the 5W technique went for five iterations simply because it is safe to suppose that a problem’s true root cause will most of the time be revealed before that number of iterations is reached. Heuristics like this one are not meant to be used literally and independent of context.

    • Thanks for the article, very interesting.

      It complements my article, I aimed on asking “why?” while focusing on the present or the future, and this technique seems to focus on the past (I’m sure it could be used anytime though).

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