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The power of asking how instead of why

Written by Jamie Hinton
Published on
Ever noticed how once you start asking ‘how’ instead of ‘why’ you get to the root of the matter and the blame and excuses disappear? As soon as we hear ‘why’, deep-seated synapses in our brains get to work and we are on guard.

38% of the UK workforce has been homeworking since March and I happily count myself in that percentage as well as our growing team at Razor.

But as a CEO, leader and a working father, this time has been fortunate but manic.

In the midst of another locked down working day last week, my children decided it might be fun to descend the entirety of the camping gear into the garden. I was greeted with this nebulous chaos on my usual commute back down the stairs from the office. Impressively, they’d been able to unearth stuff I didn’t even know we had.

What on earth possessed them to do this? I asked them Why?...their answer: ‘Because we wanted to’. Ha! Their second answer (pointing at eachother): ‘It was his idea’. Their final answer: ‘I don’t know’. My work brain kicked in, what would we do if this was software acting up. I took a seat on a screwed up groundsheet and asked them: ‘How did this happen?’

‘How?’ They repeated. ‘Mummy brought it all down out of the loft and we were really excited and wanted to check we had all the poles and pegs…’. Perfect. We’d cracked it. That’s fine, actually useful if we ever make it on a family camping trip again in the post Covid world.

Ever noticed how once you start asking ‘how’ instead of ‘why’ you get to the root of the matter and the blame and excuses disappear? As soon as we hear ‘why’, deep-seated synapses in our brains get to work and we are on guard.

We might be talking about tents and sleeping bags here but in a working environment ‘how’ does a similar thing. Changing a single word in your questioning creates a positive and free-flowing informational approach to problem solving and it truly works.

The 5 Hows

In technology, ‘how’ deals with processes, methods, approaches and procedures, elements of the workflow that can be shifted to ensure issues aren’t frequent or repeated. But using the power of ‘how’ is not just a one strike process. In fact, ‘how’ five times is commonplace. There’s also ‘The 5 whys’ but that’s a different story.

‘How’ questions used in a sequence, force you to think about what’s possible and the way situations have unfolded, by examining the steps that lead to the problem you can get a better sense of the moving parts from start to finish and where the tangible issues and solutions are.

Here’s an example shared by IBM which paints the picture quite well, it demonstrates the five ‘hows’ in action after a system failure.
How did the system fail? Answer: The database wasn’t working. How did the database fail? Answer: There were too many database entries. How was it possible that this was happening? Answer: This scenario wasn't foreseen and it wasn't tested at this capacity. How was it possible that this capacity wasn't tested? Answer: There was no test procedure involved How was it possible that we didn't have a development process for when to test? Answer: We haven't done much capacity testing and are reaching new levels of scale.

From the ‘hows’ we can see the resolution is quite clear. The team needs to put in a new test procedure which will be suitable for a range of loads to be tested and proven. Simple enough and no finger pointing.

If you don’t deal in tech, this kind method can work in all sectors, don't be blinded by the IT-sounding words. Just think of the last time you ordered something and the delivery didn’t go to plan or there was an error - these are the conversations which should be happening to resolve those issues.

Problem: Our online ordering system has a glitch in the delivery process and customers are complaining How has the ordering system failed? Answer: Products are being to the incorrect delivery address How is this possible? Answer: Customers aren’t being given an option to change delivery address How could we incorporate this option? Answer: By including it in our process once order confirmation has been completed How could we ensure users are aware of the change? Answer: We could send users a message on their account and on their registered email address How can we repair relationships with existing customers? Answer: Send them some communication detailing the changes to the ordering process

What would ‘why’ reveal in this situation? It's either the customer’s fault or the IT team’s fault. You can see a bun fight developing.

When we're talking about driving the best from people, effective problem resolution is a real test of the team/leader relationship. What happens when there are challenges which must be overcome and problems that need to be resolved is the barometer for the success of any team.

Nobody wants to create a culture where team members don’t feel comfortable coming forward with issues and ideas. Deep down ‘why’ equals blame and team morale falls when you go down this path.

‘How’ reveal the truth faster, more effectively and leads us to a root cause we can overcome. I challenge you to try this method at home, at work - with anyone - and notice the change in the response and the time and energy you save.

Don’t dwell on what's wrong with ‘why’, focus on what’s right and find a way forward. Good communicators aren’t interested in rationalisations of why something is going wrong. They want to find out how to do it right. The right questions will lead you in that direction. While you’re here, you may want to learn more about how we use this lesson within our own teams at Razor. Contact us to find out more.