Project Practitioners > The Power of Questioning Why

The Power of Questioning Why

By Brian Irwin

As project managers we expend significant thought and effort on aspects of who, what, when, where, and how of our projects and our work.  Working with project managers and front-line managers in several organizations throughout my career, I witness much less thought given to the often more relevant question of why.  Perhaps because asking why is viewed as being contrarian, and therefore may have a negative career impact, we never bother to pose the question.  Or, perhaps we don’t even think to question why.  Failing to ask, and understand, why can cost our organization immeasurable sums of money and also lead to failed initiatives and projects—not to mention the countless wasted time we expend ourselves. 

I recall the story of a newly hired engineer at a large tire manufacturing plant.  The young engineer, along with several other new hires was on an orientation tour of the manufacturing facility.  Near the end of the tour, as the group approached the shipping area, the manufacturing supervisor demonstrated a newly purchased tire-wrapping machine.  The machine cost over one-million dollars and had annual maintenance costs in the tens of thousands of dollars, including power to operate, routine maintenance, and repairs.  After the group witnessed several tires being wrapped, the engineer asked why it was necessary to wrap the tires.  The supervisor answered that, several years ago, complaints were received from customers about whitewall tires being damaged in shipping.  The engineer then asked if they still shipped whitewall tires.  After a long silence the supervisor answered that they no longer made whitewall tires.  The wrapping process was ceased and further waste was avoided.

 This story is an example of what’s commonly referred to as a sacred cow—an outmoded belief, assumption, practice, policy, system, or process that is usually invisible, inhibits change and prevents responsiveness.  In other words, it is “the way we’ve always done things around here.”  How much of what you do is done because that’s the way you’ve always done it?  Do you follow a process that doesn’t make sense to you simply for compliance and fail to challenge it?  Are you so apathetic that you no longer care to challenge the status quo?  At one point in my career, admittedly, my answer to the last question was yes.  However, I no longer have that apathy; it’s irresponsible and, quite frankly, boring. 

 Of course, I’m not condoning malevolence or insubordination.  I am, however, suggesting that we examine the why behind processes and actions that simply do not make sense or that we are unsure about.  If a valid reason exists, it should surface readily.  If not, try to identify what you can do to rectify the situation.  Do not simply go through the motions of passive compliance with seeming absurdity.  Challenge and be part of the solution, not part of the perpetuation of the problem.  This may be as easy as discontinuing things you’re doing that do not add value; or, it may be difficult and require a certain level of intelligent disobedience.  In either case, the choice is yours.  The result may be directly related to your career fulfillment and joy on the job.  Who knows, you may even be recognized for pointing out inefficiencies.  This can be very personally and professionally gratifying.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Examine the why -- great follow-up. :) I wonder, did they manage to recoup any of the sunk costs of that superfluous machine through re-purposing or resale?

Come to think of it, I can remember a few document management procedures that I followed in previous jobs that were probably an awful lot like that million-dollar tire-wrapper. I never questioned them, because (to my eternal shame) I was afraid to look foolish. I bet that holds people back as often as anything.

Isn't it wonderful how children are always asking why -- until most of them are shut down by our elementary education system. Those of us who persisted grew up to be newspaper reporters or ostracized -- or both.

Jeff, you are absolutely correct. I myself have two sons in elementary school and always encourage them to ask why. Not only is it important to advancement of societies, but also imperative for our critical thinking and reasoning skills.

Hi DeAnna, I'm glad you enjoyed this post. As for the recuperation of the costs of the tire wrapping machine, I'm not sure if they were able to realize any amount of that sunk cost at all.

Also, I've never been afraid to look foolish - obviously!

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