Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.

The Why Revolution

Somthing my friend Andrew Crosthwaite at Global Innovation Network just sent me. It reminds me of something about the '7 levels of why' that I had in my head for at least five years - but never managed to write down. See if it strikes a chord with you too.

"Because I say so". What parent has not at some stage made this statement and then felt shame-faced afterwards? Children are always asking "Why?" – and do so with a number of motivations. At the core is the desire for discovery and knowledge, the wish to make sense of a baffling world, full of complexity. Alternatively there is the suspicion that their parents are not as omniscient as they appear.

I remember the first detention I received at secondary school. My maths master had explained (or so he thought) a particular problem or theorem. He paused and my voice rang out – "why?" I was probably punished for my insolent tone, rather than my intellectual curiosity, but I was kept in for 2 hours after school and my parents probably thought I had been abducted by aliens.

As we enter the work environment, our ability to ask "why" diminishes. We assume that the corporation knows best, that our senior colleagues occupy that role and salary scale precisely because they have the answers. So we get on with things. My proposal is that the time is right for the "Why Revolution". It’s not about needlessly challenging the status quo, but ensuring that all of our (often lazy) assumptions have been tested. This should not be seen as a destructive process – a venerated London adman, Robin Wight, based his approach on "Interrogating a brand until it confesses to its strengths".

The person who keeps chanting "Why?" in a meeting is more likely to end up being fired, than receive a 2 hour detention, but perhaps the spirit behind it should be part of any brand or project evaluation. Think of it as a decision tree process. Look at what you are doing or thinking – either collectively or individually and throw down the "Why?" gauntlet. If you don’t do it now, someone – probably that venerated sage, the consumer, will do so in future.

Some answers may be linear; others may split into strands of multiple reasons, so don’t just pursue the obvious. For each "Why", ask an additional "What if we..." question. You may be surprised at the insights that it leads to, and as the guilty parent, find out that what you don’t know far outweighs what you do.

Add New Comment


  • Carel Two-Eagle

    My Four Favorite Questions have been the guiding force of my life. They have gotten me expelled, detained, and otherwise harrassed for showing too much independence. I'm a great-grandmother now, and I'm still the precocious kid with a million questions - "Why?" being at the front of the list. The other 3 are: Why Not?, What's REALLY going on here?, and "Who or What is thinking for you in this matter? Keep asking. Refuse to stop asking. Underline those last 2 remarks, and put them in bold, italicized! If more people had been asking these questions for the past 20 - 30 years, I believe we wouldn't have had such scandals as we have had. The only people who have ever made a difference are the ones who refused to quietly accept the status quo and 'get on with things', particularly 'as they were told to'. Ask! Ask again! Ask more! Keep it up! One person can make a difference; but s/he HAS to ask a question in order to.