Taking time to fully and collectively understand the “why” not only builds ownership and increases the chance for a meaningful and sustainable solution, but it sustains us through the hard work of change. If we do not have a clear and shared answer for “why” we are going to struggle when the going gets tough. How many initiatives have you experienced where the stakeholders end up frustrated, angry, and disillusioned because they really do not understand the “why”?
If my world is going to get rearranged, I want to know why and I also want a feeling of ownership and control.
The Power of “Why”
By Mark Nichols and Marco Torres
In our work with people and organizations, we notice that overall, we are much better “how what and when” (operational) people then we are why (thoughtful) people. Whether it is because we have been trained and educated that way, work environments value it more, the pace of decision making fosters it, or it is simply more comfortable and safer we are pretty good asking and answering the operational questions. This is almost true to the extent that when we encounter a person gifted in asking “why” and “what if” questions, we find them irritating and a waste of time. How can we ever get anything done when you keep asking why?
There is a certain level of comfort in the “just tell me what to do, tell me how to do it, and when is it due” framework. It’s easier to track, manage, and assess, but ultimately, it does not allow for the more in-depth, intrinsic opportunities to be curious, question current practice, evolve, and innovate.
In Challenge Based Learning, this tendency can result in backward engineering the framework by justifying a pre-conceived solution. Without an honest effort to discuss and explore the essential question (why do we care about the big idea), and taking time to ask a wide range of guiding questions, we end up jumping from challenge to solution based on pre-conceived ideas and hunches. We move directly to what we are going to create, how we are going to do it, what it is going to do, and when we are going to do it. This is why there are a lot of bad ideas, products, and the tendency to make the same mistakes over and over.
The rush to solutions in groups uncovers the additional issues of limited ownership and a lack of shared vocabulary. Often when the focus immediately moves towards solutions and operational questions, there has not been enough dialogue to establish a common vocabulary, shared understanding, and by extension ownership. In all organizations, but this is especially true in educational ones, we regularly use complicated terms and simply expect that everyone shares the same definition.
Personalized learning, technology integration, flipped classrooms, STEM, STEAM, coding, creativity, etc. are all used as starting points for school reform efforts without a thorough discussion of why, what do these things mean, and whether the stakeholders have a shared understanding. Often we don’t understand the “why” or have a shared understanding of the vocabulary, and that becomes apparent when we get to implementing the solution. It is at this point we can say – “wait, that is not how I understood the problem and solution, and I am not sure why we are even doing this” resulting in a lack of ownership and sustainability.
Think about your most recent initiative. Does every deeply understand the why? Does everyone share similar definitions? How do you know? Have you all talked about it? What does this process look like for your team/ organization?
There is a solution to this problem, and it is merely taking the time to ask the magical why until we have a meaningful answer and in groups a shared understanding. If we want meaningful and sustainable solutions, we must take the time to ask the why questions, build a common vocabulary, and collectively own the process. Brian Cain, a mental performance authority works with coaches, athletes, and teams to improve performance at all levels. He writes about the importance of why in enhancing motivation and that it often takes at least four why questions to uncover the underlying intrinsic why that will change behavior*. Without asking why everything is a black box, and there could be hundreds of different answers in there. By asking the first why we open the box but will most likely get reactionary or superficial answers. By continuing to ask why we uncover the underlying vocabulary and motivation.
At a recent teacher workshop, there was agreement that the students should be “critical thinkers” but no effort to define the attributes of a “critical thinker.” By taking time to pause, ask questions (Why is critical thinking important?), discuss personal understandings, and review definitions the conversation the group was able to not only agree on a definition but also identify evidence needed to demonstrate critical thinking and ideas for activities to integrate into their practice. We just can’t skip this step, we miss out an excellent learning opportunity if we do. Defining the terms and agreeing on language sets the foundation for co-ownership and increases motivation.
Taking time to fully and collectively understand the “why” not only builds ownership and increases the chance for a meaningful and sustainable solution, but it sustains us through the hard work of change. If we do not have a clear and shared answer for “why” we are going to struggle when the going gets tough. How many initiatives have you experienced where the stakeholders end up frustrated, angry, and disillusioned because they really do not understand the “why”? If my world is going to get rearranged, I want to know why and I also want a feeling of ownership and control. Instead of the “one more thing” overload feeling that many stakeholders feel over new initiatives— how can this needed pause help build the buy-in from everyone, help align the purposes to create a collective essential why, and demonstrate how all of the pieces fit together.