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The unexpected benefits of simply asking "Why?"

Curiosity is an important attribute for any successful businessperson. It's something I always try to measure during an interview, for example. That's because I've found the more curious someone is, the more likely they are to embrace change and want to learn new things.

I'm frequently amazed at how rarely we ask each other "why?" over the course of a day. Some people worry the question will be interpreted as them challenging their colleague. Others feel they just need to do what's asked and not question the logic behind the request.

In reality, "why?" is where learning often starts.

I've often wondered how many times something I thought was a simple request turned into a major homework assignment for someone else. The higher you are on the org chart, the greater the likelihood your requests become the new top priority. Again, there have been countless times when what I regarded as a low-priority, 5-minute task suddenly caused a team to drop what they're doing and spend half the day answering. Ugh.

I try to be specific by saying things like, "this is low priority" or, my favorite, which is, "if this takes you more than 5 minutes it's not worth doing." Despite those guidelines I've still experienced plenty of situations where my request derailed other higher-priority activities.

One of the things I've started doing is regularly encouraging the team to ask me "why?". More importantly, I now say, regardless of my request, if it's going to take longer than 5 minutes to complete please be sure to ask me why I need it. This not only helps provide context for colleagues but it also leads to better open communication. Better yet, sometimes when answering the "why?" I'm forced to think further about my request and realize either (a) it's not what I really need or, better yet, (b) my colleague has a better way of helping me answer the problem I'm trying to solve, and that's priceless.

So do yourself a favor and encourage more of a "why?" culture throughout your organization. I promise you'll appreciate the results.


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