Being asked "why?" puts people on the defensive. Because if they've never thought about the answer or don't have a good one, they're forced to justify their decisions and actions--or open up to the idea of changing their mind.

For this very reason, asking "why" is essential for any business that wants to grow. Growth requires creative thinking. It requires out-strategizing and outworking the competition, the problem we're trying to solve, and our own old ways of doing things.

When the answer you get isn't satisfactory, you know that something has to change. If nothing else, asking why can help you abandon bad ideas before you waste your time and energy on them.

Being asked why can be frustrating too. Sometimes you're just trying to get work done and see the question as a distraction. We all know those people who would rather put their heads down and do the work the way they've always done it instead of examining why they do it that way. If they were forced to give an answer, they'd have to admit that their way was less efficient, less effective, costlier, or more damaging than beneficial. When challenged, their reaction ranges from mild annoyance to fury.

If you're getting a negative reaction, posing the question in a different way might yield more insight and reduce defensiveness.

These 10 questions and prompts have a why at heart without actually using the word.

  1. Tell me more about how this process evolved.
  2. What problem were we (or they--a past project team) originally trying to solve?
  3. What were the criteria that lead to this decision?
  4. What were the team's top priorities at the time?
  5. What did the leadership/management want to accomplish?
  6. What were our clients asking for?
  7. How did our competitors respond?
  8. What technology was available?
  9. What do we know now that we didn't know then?
  10. Has this process ever been evaluated? If so, what was the outcome?

If you're hitting a defensive roadblock when asking why straight out, questions like these can help you better understand the past circumstances and criteria of a certain issue. From there, you document what's different now and propose a tweak or entirely new process that addresses that change--and doesn't attack the person or team who developed or enforces the old way of doing things.

Asking why is about understanding a decision made or action taken. It's looking at the past to better understand the present and steer towards the best possible future. Without asking these questions, we won't have the tools necessary to change our strategies in response to an ever-changing world.