‘But why?’ can be two exasperating words, words that chisel away at parental resolve like water dripping on a tin roof. Of course the fact that they are used in a highly concentrated way at around the three-year benchmark makes it even more unfair and harder to endure. But that is the way it is and there is no escaping it.
It was during this period in Keegan’s life that I one day strapped him in the back seat of the car and set off at the bidding of Her Master’s Voice on some or other errand.
No sooner had we exited the safety of our domain when Keegan, sensing that he was with a less battle-hardened victim, threw the first ‘why?’ response to some ill-advised comment of mine. Too naïve to recognise what was going on, I responded enthusiastically, inwardly delighted at the promising father-son conversation that was unfolding. Now I have to admit that it wasn’t until the third or fourth ‘why’ that I got the feeling that something was awry, in much the same way I imagine, that a blind hobbit would feel stumbling into a maze. It was at this point of no return that I made a fatal tactical mistake. I foolishly decided to press on and attempt to exhaust the ‘why’ storehouse. A silly mistake I know, but such is the wisdom of hindsight.
The situation became hopeless. Every explanation offered, whether fat or thin, merely served to elicit another ‘why?’ From the same intelligence that forbids males from asking for directions, I blundered on, determined to stay the course by mumbling mind-numbing monotone explanations.
And then the breakthrough happened.
After yet another hoarse offering from me, an exasperated little voice from the rear seat said, ‘Daddy, just say BECAUSE, man.’
All my explanations and volumes of words had been utterly wasted. All that had been sought from the enquiring mind in the rear seat was an answer that was usually delivered with the air of parental authority reserved for moms. ‘Because.’ – The final word, the word to stop the ‘why’ rhino dead in its tracks! The consummate explanation and sought-after answer to every ‘why’ question.
How could I have missed it?
How long had mom known about this and why was such valuable information not shared with the allies? But at least now you know. The answer is a simple, but authoritative, ‘because’. Use this trump card early and get over the idealistic notion of your role in fostering intellectual enquiry. Leave that to the teachers who are paid to do it.
‘Why?’ is one of the best questions to be asking in business and specifically to leaders. Ironic, isn’t it? We drum it out of our vocabulary only for me to suggest that we relearn and redeploy it as adults. Of course it can be a risky business as not all environments support such a question, and whether or not your particular environment does will soon become apparent. I believe that environments that don’t, with the possible exception of the military, will soon no longer be around anyway, so best you look elsewhere before it is too late.
There was a time when the chain-of-command type of leadership was mainstream, and to ask ‘why?’ of the all-knowing god to whom you answered, would only destine you forever to be the Gollum-grub on ground floor. Those who dared ask questions were marginalised or regarded as disloyal or unmanageable. Troublemakers, rebels, the round pegs in square holes, the deviants who needed to be avoided or, at worst, fired. Such people tend to find each other and create colonies of their own, mavericks, outcasts, rebels – those who see and do things differently. But they are more often than not the change-agents, those who make a lasting difference. It is such people that are more needed now than ever before.
Some companies still don’t get it. They operate like well-oiled machines that, at worst, expend vast amounts of energy eliminating any dissident ‘why?’ voices or, at best, answer, ‘because . . . that’s the way we have always done it’. They often appear to be well-ordered and harmonious companies with their carefully crafted mission statements, purpose statements, core value statements or whatever statements (very few really know the difference here) prominently displayed. They offer their standard explanation, ‘But that’s our policy, sir’, or the wildly creative variable of, ‘But that’s not our policy, Madam’, to any customer foolish enough to venture the ‘why’ question. Should you succeed in getting in behind the first line of defense you simply encounter more of the same, only this time from longer titles with bigger desks and, inevitably, less coherence.
Tomorrow’s leaders will need to invite and encourage questions. They will understand that it is through questions that better ways are discovered, that people are challenged and growth happens. The ‘why?’ question will be regarded as fundamental to their armoury. And they will succeed in unleashing the chaotic forces needed for creativity and innovation to flourish.
Of course there are many other great questions that should be asked and to those who dare ask them, to them will lie the spoils of war. Do you hear yourself asking the questions, or do you hear yourself responding with ‘because’?
The test might come the next time you encounter a three-year-old!
I read the other day that asking the ‘wrong’ questions generates the ‘wrong’ answers, followed by ‘wrong’ directions, and risks a mistaken idea of how well the company is doing. Questions bordering on the absurd are more useful. Finding and then learning to ask the ‘right’ questions is fundamental to both personal and corporate growth. They become the barometer by which real progress can be measured.
The problem is, we seldom ask the right questions, and even less frequently do we want to hear the answers!
Niels Bohr, who explored the world of quantum physics, would preface any introduction of a new concept by saying to his students, ‘Every sentence that I utter should not be considered as an assurance but as a question.’ He also reportedly made it a dictum that ‘No paradox, no progress’.
Perhaps the ability to perceive, to see or think differently is more important than the ‘capture of knowledge’.