Simon Sinek is a TED talk sensation and the topic of his talk is the same as that of his book, Start With Why. In his book, he spoke about why it was most important to start all decisions, all discussions, all actions with why – why are you doing what you are doing. That is the most important question in strategic thinking.
When we start thinking strategically, we start with the why. Yet, we know from the cognitive bias called the substitution effect, we seldom ever say what we want, even when we are asked, substituting it for something less difficult to say. For example, someone in Singapore might ask, “Should I buy a car?” and when you ask why, he might say, “Because my car is almost 10 years old.” But that is not an intent, that is only a reason (some might call this an excuse).
So how do we uncover the true intent?
Asking why is more an art than a science. “Why do you want to buy a new car?” might not uncover the true intent, and may hover around the same reasons or excuses. Instead of simply asking “why”, ask “why is it important?” So to the question about the car, ask “Why is it important that you buy a new car?” Suddenly the question reframes from the person’s perspective away from the product onto the importance of it.
But asking it once will also not allow a person to uncover the true intent. It needs to be asked successively. This is called the “5 Why’s”. It is a deceptively simple process. While we know how to apply this cognitively, when we actually try to do it, it might not lead one to the intent. There is a need to bring one to dive deeper into the decision, to ultimately lead to the intent.
Let’s eavesdrop on a discussion between a person making a decision, and a decision coach…
Decision Question: “Should I quit my job?”
Question 1: Why is it important that you should quit your job?
Answer 1: Because I am not happy.
Question 2: Yes, I understand, but that does not answer why it is important. So let me ask this question again…why is it important for you to quit your job?
Answer 2: Because I am not working to my full potential.
Question 3: And why is it important for you to work to your full potential?
Answer 3: Because then I can learn more things.
Question 4: And why is it important for you to learn more things?
Answer 4: Because then I can increase my range of experience
Question 5: And why is it important for you to increase your range of experience?
Answer 5: Because I can work in different companies
Question 6: Why is it important that you work in different companies?
Answer 6: So that I can progress in my career.
Question 7: Why is it important that you progress in your career?
Answer 7: So that I can earn more.
Question 8: Why is it important for you to earn more?
Answer 8: Because then I can enjoy more.
Question 9: And why is it important that you enjoy more?
Answer 9: So that I can be happier…
At this point in time, it is best to stop the line of questioning because we come to the lowest common denominator for almost all decision questions – to be happy, to be rich, to be a better person, etc. How many people don’t want this? Yet, this cannot be the intent, not especially for the decision question.
In this case, we need to move up the previous answers to see if that indeed is a better answer; in this case, to enjoy more. Would that be a good intent? Again, no. It is still too generic. Then, we move up again – “so I can earn more.” Would that be a good intent? Yes, if the person really wanted that. To assess that, we need to ask a confirming question: “If there is a way for you to earn more without having to quit your job, would you take that?” Look out for the answer. If the answer is yes, then that would be the intent. But if the answer is no, then that is not the intent, so we move up the line of thinking again; in this case, “progress in my career.” Ask the same confirming question again, and then assess if that is indeed what the person is looking for. Finally, we are now able to identify the true intent of the decision question.
What do we learn about this?
It always starts with a decision question
The 5 Why’s does not last 5 questions; it can be more, yet it can be less. Sometimes, all it takes it just one question!
Don’t just ask why, but “why is it important”.
If the response to the “Why is it important” question does not really answer why it was important, repeat the question.
For personal and even business decisions, the 5 Why’s usually come down to generic answers like to be happy, self-contented, accomplished, etc. These seldom become the intent for the person.
Once you reach the generic answers, stop; and then move up the chain of answers, testing each of them by asking confirming questions like, “If there is a way to achieve (possible intent) without having to make (decision question), would you take it?”
If the answer is yes, then that would be the intent, if it is no, then move up the chain again.
Obviously, this means that you need to write the answers down