Who always asks why

Since Simon Sinek brought the matter with the "WHY" into play, everyone has been overjoyed: The question of WHY has become a business mantra. No matter how, when, for what, by whom, to whom - with Impetus a whole cohort turns in "golden circles" and tries to fathom the "purpose". The motivational syringe is filled with the sweet poison of seductive reasoning logic.

With the WHY in autopilot mode

"Apple would not be where they are today if they had not invariably put the question of WHY at the center of their considerations," is the frequently cited business myth. Aha, then again Apple. Apart from the fact that Apple actually has to serve for pretty much every type of model and theory in the context of innovation ... The simple causal chain of "A leads to B" raises the suspicion of first-order linear thinking. Ask yourself WHY and your business will run like clockwork, almost in autopilot mode.

"Yes, but the question of the purpose is anything but trivial ...", one or the other may reply at this point. And that's exactly the point. The omnipresent "Starting with Why" in all TEDtalk- and Blinkist-enriched keynotes, webinars or trainings suggests the short conclusion that it is enough to ask quite blatantly and explicitly "WHY?" With all due respect, there is a blatant misunderstanding.

Put the human being at the center

"He who asks leads" is an old saying of the systemic school of thought. And anyone who asks questions may well be aware of this power. Because the quality of the questions determines the level of knowledge. And that is (depending on the questioning technique) of different quality.

When we talk about the paradigm of customer centricity everywhere today, then everything, really everything, revolves around the topic of customer needs. What does the customer really want? And above all: WHY? There is a lot of talk about empathy. The customer is always the focus and secretly always in the way for many. That's why you want to get rid of the annoying zeitgeist duty of customer centricity very quickly by getting to the heart of the matter. "Why don't you give a reason?" Is often the request in well-intentioned customer surveys. It can't be described in a charming way, I'm afraid, so here's a frank statement: The question WHY doesn't work!

The quality of the questions determines the level of knowledge

In fact, something like a hierarchy of questions can be constructed. The top of the question pyramid is the type of questions that result in the maximum gain in knowledge. And these are questions that focus on people's motives. If we start with simple questions - at the foot of the pyramid, so to speak - then these are initially closed decision-making questions.

Apparently constructed very simply, the explanatory content of the answers is manageable. If I know that the other person will choose answer A instead of answer B, I'm often not really smarter. Answers to decision-making questions often leave the feeling of "So what ?!"

How can we get a little further up on the steps of the question pyramids? The open questions - i.e. questions that do not offer any structured answer specifications - offer a broad field here. In the case of open questions, it is important to invite people to tell stories, to report and to initially pick them up with questions on which they can move confidently in their thoughts.

So people are very well able to report on things that they have experienced. They will reflect their very personal perception, just as we humans do. We enjoy reporting about our lives, especially when someone is interested, listens to us benevolently and empathetically. Maybe that's the whole magic of good questions. Customer journeys use exactly this fact, because they depict the context of use in all facets - and a bit beyond that.

Most people also like to be asked for their opinion. You feel put in the role of the expert and are asked for your opinion. This flatters and invites - assuming open, appreciative questioning techniques - to extensive omissions and with deep insights into the world of vision of the respondent.

The top of the question pyramid relates to the WHY and thus actually protrudes into the realm of motifs that cannot be explicitly identified. The particularly stupid thing about the direct question "WHY?" is that we usually get an answer to it. But what do we do with it? Can we take these answers at face value and translate them one to one? That brings us back to linear thinking, which assumes it is one There is reason for our opinions, attitudes and actions. And: that we know this reason, have consciously reflected it and can also articulate it.

The desire to be able to make the entire decision-making process visible and thus transparent by asking questions remains pious and irredeemable. Not infrequently, with the WHY question, we cause people to find it difficult to explain, which they counter with an obligation to justify. As a rule, however, the direct WHY question gives us nothing but rationalized cheese or at best partial explanations.

The number of WHYs does not solve the problem

And repeating the WHY question several times does not cure the problem either. The objection "One WHY is not enough, you have to ask five times; that's what Toyota does when they really want to get to the bottom of problems!" is not really smart. More like another method myth. As if the number of whys would raise the quality of the basic question to another level.

It's about as smart as if I were wrong to believe that proper protective clothing could help with fear in the dark. And if it didn't work out with the first jacket, then I put on five safety jackets, if necessary change the material. It will work.

The WHY question implies that there is only one There is a reason and that it is only a question of whether we know this reason.

Change of perspective expands the space of thought for a solution

So what really helps? We can do a great deal to learn implicitly about people's need structures by encouraging them to change their perspective. This is as unusual as it is illuminating - for respondents and those questioning. And there is the question, "How do you know that you are happy?" the 10-fold smarter version of "why are you happy?"

When exactly are you happy? What happens when you are happy? What would other people say about how they behave when you are happy? Systemic questions open up room for thought. Clever questions make you pause and think. And that is usually accompanied by a break. It is important to endure this silence and not to cut it short with hasty conclusions.

Not every answer is an insight

Not everything that is presented to us as an answer is an insight. The fact that we have experienced something new or exciting is easy to jump to conclusions. If we want to penetrate the realm of need phenomena, we have to leave the explicit level for better or worse. It remains to close the information gap through interpretation. And that also includes observing people asking questions. Is the content of the answer consistent with his posture, voice, expression? If areas of tension arise, it is important to take up this trace.

The result are more or less plausible hypotheses that can certainly serve as explanatory models. As uncomfortable as the insight may sound, that is the best we can get from observing and questioning people about their needs. And the greatest challenge is the ability and willingness to say goodbye to your own truths.

The eight ways to really good questions and insights

  1. Create an appreciative, inviting survey atmosphere that is characterized by empathy for the respondent. Show real interest and abstain from rating.
  2. Invite your counterpart to storytelling with open questions that are based on their life situation. Give him the chance to report in detail about what moves him. Initially move to his island of thought before he should deal with your topics.
  3. Don't just focus on the spoken word. Observe voice, posture, gestures and facial expressions. Be alert to incongruities between what is said and what is overtly felt.
  4. Endure pauses and hesitation. It is not uncommon for them to be the breakthrough to real insights.
  5. Hold back from jumping to conclusions. The most obvious way is not always the right one.
  6. Avoid explicit WHY questions. They will produce answers that are unlikely to reveal much about real motivational structures.
  7. Collect all knowledge and try to recognize patterns and structures. And gradually approach the subject of motif.
  8. Recognizing motive structures is an iterative process in the course of which we receive hypotheses that need to be compared. Therefore: Maintain the openness and willingness to be able to separate yourself from your own truths.

In spite of all wishes, in spite of all necessities: in the search for the WHY we will never get more than plausible and practicable guesses that will do us their loyal service until we have become a bit smarter through feedback.

View this post in English

Jule Jankowski is a freelance innovation consultant and moderator. With her enthusiasm and dedication to the topic of human centricity, she enables teams at employee and management level to develop ideas in an agile manner. In this way, it supports organizations in taking the decisive step towards customer centricity. Her most recent projects are design sprints on the topics of product and brand development as well as training / consulting on agile leadership.

InnovationCustomer loyaltyCustomer satisfactionProduct development