First, Ask Why

First, Ask Why

July 31, 2020

When I was serious about triathlons, I learned a term from my running coach: Junk Miles. Junk miles are runs that have no purpose. They wear on your body and don’t have any training purpose. The point is – every time you go out for a run it should have a reason: speed, distance, technique, recovery, or pacing. This was a real epiphany for me at the time and it altered how I thought about my training.

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Better Employees

The same thing is true of much of what we do in our work. It seems obvious that every initiative has a purpose. But surprisingly, those reasons are often nonexistent or, at least, unclear. This is especially pernicious in organizations. The CEO may have purview into the organization’s strategy, but she doesn’t share it in a way that connects each individual or team’s work to it. If managers don’t have that perspective, they can’t share it with their teams.

For example, one of my clients is head of product in a fast-growing tech start-up called Narrative. I’m going to call him Jason (not his name). He told me about his previous role in a multinational technology company where he often had no idea why his team was working on a particular product, or how the user interface they were creating would fulfill the company or the customer’s needs.

The issue arises especially for middle managers, who are tasked with executing projects. The project seems like a standalone phenomenon – existing in a vacuum — but to truly be successful, it needs a bigger context. In the absence of that context, project leaders can’t make assessments about whether their decisions on tactics or tasks are optimal.

Imagine you are requested to build a website for a new product – a new pet supplement. If you have only that information and a description of the product there are a variety of different open questions. Without knowing the answers to some of them, the project is opaque, and the website will likely fall short of its potential to benefit the company.

As the project leader, you would want to know why this website is needed. Should it fit into the rest of the existing sites or is it a standalone offering? Are prospective customers pet-owners, veterinarians, pet shops, or distributors? Also, how does this product fit into our general customer proposition? Do we see ourselves as a low-cost or premium provider? There is much more to understand, all of which would make the brief “create a website” far clearer. Understanding the why – all aspects of it– makes for better work, better outcomes, and more cohesive organizations in which people do their work better and accelerate the company’s progress.

The 5 Ws

Another client uses a model described in a blog about the Five Ws.  It coopts the critical questions that every journalist is trained to ask and applies them to any project from its start. Those questions are:

Who, what, where, when, and why. His approach adds an additional question, how.

The key point is that context is critical when you are trying to accomplish anything. Whatever you are tasked with doing will be improved by understanding the why behind it. This will make you the kind of employee and partner that your boss needs, and the kind of leader whose team thrives.


Understanding the why, and its strategic origin also undergirds high-performing organizations through their strategies. When everything is tied to the company’s strategy – explicitly – results accelerate and so does the company’s success.

When my team helps clients develop strategic plans, we start from the vision, and then map every aspect of the organization from its the vision to its measurable goals, through logical connections to initiatives.  Those connections demonstrate the why.  And it always tracks back to the vision and goals. One way to ensure your employees always understand the why is to use a strategy map. That’s a longer conversation, but at Beyond Better, we specialize in it.

My client, Jason, who had found his previous experience so lacking in context, addressed that issue for his Narrative colleagues. He built an interactive diagram with a tool called Miro. It shows all the connections from the company’s top strategic goals to each level of the product’s eventual development. The sequence from top to bottom is something like:







Every level of the visual representation is expandable and linkable to the tools the company uses to execute those portions of the product strategy. This is a product-centric version of something like a strategy map.

Whoever you are in the company, this will help you do your job better.

Orphans Audit

One more thing. You can use this to audit everything you do. Look at any process and ask why we do it. You’ll discover orphan projects and processes. Human orphans are parentless, and orphan projects or processes lack purpose.

By the way, this also works on your personal routine. Ask why and reclaim some time.

When I was a child, my mother taught me how to fold towels. It was an involved method. Years later, still folding towels according to my mom’s specs, I learned that she folded them differently nowadays. I was aghast and accused her of violating her own towel-folding edict. It turns out that the shelves in my childhood home were narrow. She folded towels into smaller shapes so more of them would fit.  The closets were larger in her new home rendering the why obsolete. It was also obsolete in my home! I had just never asked why.

Asking why may free you of wasted tasks and activities. Until you take the time to inspect the why behind your personal and professional activities, you will spend energy needlessly. Discovering orphan tasks and routines shows that you are just spinning your wheels. That will free you up to do something else, whose why is apparent!