‘Why’ is a Word we Just don’t use Enough

“If we always accept what we are told, how much can we truly learn? And can we ever hope to do things better than we already do if nobody questions what they are told?

Organisations, particularly in our industry, rely too much on doing things according to ‘accepted’ knowledge and processes. So, we never find out if there was a better way of achieving our goal.  We don’t progress.

The lack of a questioning approach holds back advances in many industries and walks of life. It may be why the construction industry struggles to improve levels of productivity. We just don’t ask ‘why?’ often enough.

As we grow up, asking ‘why?’ isn’t encouraged. And translates too often into acceptance of ‘this is how we do things here’ when we enter the world of work. The sense is that people who ask ‘why? ‘are seen to slow everything down. ‘We know how to do this so let’s just get on with it.’ Sound familiar? This approach could be seen as dangerous and slightly backward in our thinking.
‘Why’ is a word we need to hear more of. It’s a word we should encourage from people who work for us and with us. ‘Why’ is what keeps our thinking fresh and helps us to improve.

Uncomfortable Truths
Asking why isn’t comfortable. For example, a junior member of staff to question what they are being told by somebody with more experience (unless they are encouraged to do so).

And it’s not always comfortable for managers and supervisors. When things don’t go well ‘why?’ becomes even more important. But too often the investigation of a failure doesn’t get past the process of establishing what happened. Investigations reveal a purely factual account of events that led to the failure, with no learning about root causes that would help the organisation learn.

Settling for a factual explanation that is easy to understand, can look like the quickest and least confrontational way to come to a resolution. Learning organizations dig deeper. Leaders need the determination to understand the why as well as the what. Leaders in these organizations welcome being questioned and don’t see it as a challenge to their authority or self-esteem.

Not asking why isn’t a problem unique to our industry. But not many sectors have our urgent need to transform how we work. So let’s all get into the habit of using the word ‘why’ much more frequently.”

Hayden Woods is Assistant Quantity Surveyor for Infrastructure at Osborne.