"Why?" isn't always the question it appears to be. (Sometimes the best response won't answer it.)

Musing for:

“Why?” isn’t always the question it appears to be.

I can remember three different phases of “Why?” questions I got as my kids grew from children to adults. I was prepared only for the first two.

The first was the repeated “Why?” of new discovery as a young child asks why things are the way they are. As much as I could, I tried to give them answers that balanced completeness with age-appropriateness.

The second phase was the “Why not?” phase, which often felt more challenging. Why can’t we do this? Why don’t we do things this way. As the parent, I would often give direct answers, explaining exactly why we can’t or don’t do certain things. I realize now that taking a coach approach, asking them questions to help them discover their own arguments for or against certain decisions, might have been better.

But it’s the third phase that I want to discuss today. It’s one that extends long into adulthood and, in my opinion, best reflects the kinds of “Why?” questions that tend to surface as you’re leading a team.

The question looks the same as the second phase. You have a plan in mind, and maybe you’re already putting it into action, and then someone questions your decision.

I recall when my nine-year-old son was helping me with a backyard construction project. He watched how much of a struggle my electric drill was having driving long screws through landscape timbers. He looked at me and asked, “Why don’t you drill a hole through the timber first, and then put the screw in?” Honestly, it hadn’t occurred to me that adding an extra step to this physical process would actually make it easier. In my head, I tried to formulate an argument in favor of simplicity, but I realized it wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny.

I had reached the third phase. The best response to “Why not?” was no longer a direct answer. Instead it was, “That’s a good idea. Let me try that.”

This was supposed to be a project for his education, but it turned out that in that moment, he was the teacher and I became the student.

As you advance in leadership, especially in a technology organization, you’ll find that some of the best ideas masquerade as questions that may feel like challenges to your position or your intelligence. When you can embrace the change of direction that comes from a creative “Why?” question, you’ll see more success for yourself, for your team, and for the growth of those who ask the questions.

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