Why and How to Become a "Whys Guy"


"A man is at home, wearing a mask. Another man is coming home."


I like to begin a conference session on Question-asking by posing this puzzler. It gets people asking all kinds of questions in order to figure out how this enigmatic situation can make sense.

Which is exactly what many businesspeople and professionals need to do in their work every day -- whether they are doctors diagnosing, IT teams trouble-shooting, or real-estate brokers selling. (Answer to the puzzler appears below.)

Becoming a "Whys" guy involves asking questions that go beyond just "Why" -- questions like these, some of will apply in 85% of business and professional situations:

What can I do to help you?

What is preventing you from doing your best work?

How do you feel about this?

Can you explain that further?

From what standpoint are you asking?

What are some of the reasons this did not work as well as we hoped?

What can we change to make this work better?

What key results are we looking for here?

The greatest management principle in the world, according to Michael Le Boeuf, Ph.D. in his book with that title, is a question -- the most important question you can ask about the organization in which you work, or any organization with which you are associated. (Answer appears below.)

For your personal life, there's an intriguing book, One Questions That Can Save Your Marriage (or any relationship) by couples-counselor Harry P. Dunne, Ph.D. (Perigee Publishers, New York). (Dunne's "magic" question appears below.)

The best primer for becoming a world-class Question-asker in your organization, field, or profession, is Smart Questions: A New Strategy for Successful Managers, by Dorothy Leeds (Berkley Books, New York).

Now, here's a re-cap of the information and ideas presented in the two columns on "The Whys Guy".


Many top companies today, especially in the high-tech "New Economy," see Whys Guys as basic to their success. For example, ENRON, which Fortune magazine calls "one of the most innovative companies in America", has discovered that the root of its profitability lies in the simple fact that its people are constantly asking "Why?".

When researchers Jim Anderson and John Wagner prowled through the company to find the individuals who actually hatched the ideas that have proven most profitable, they found that every one of them explained that it started when he or she asked "Why?".

"They had each questioned conventional thinking with this short, sharp, abrupt word," says the company's president, Owen Schrader, "and suddenly decades of 'standard operating procedures' collapsed. New directions became apparent. We see it as our basic credo ­- it's the word of the visionary. It directly confronts the pessimistic, the defeatists, the lazy. If you're not afraid to ask 'Why?', you can change anything! "

In the "Old Economy," too, question-asking is a powerful tool to get to the roots of problems. A series of "Why" questions were used to reveal the causes of a 1992 catastrophe at Sears Roebuck. The company had lost 15% of its auto repair business nationally, and 20% in California, for a total estimated cost of $8 million. By asking a series of "Why" questions ("Why have consumer complaints risen by 50%?" "Why are Sears repairmen overcharging customers?" etc.), the causes of the debacle became apparent.

A fuller account of this case can be found in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook by Peter Senge and Associates (Currency Books ­ Bantam, 1994), pp. 111ff.

Answer to puzzler: The man at home is the catcher. The man coming home is coming from third base.


A 5-Step technique for being a "Whys Guy" also appears in this book, written by Rick Ross (pp. 108-111). Briefly, the technique is:

1. Pick the symptom or problem you wish to explore, and ask "Why is this taking place?"

2. Repeat the process for each answer you get, asking "Why?" about each one.

3. Continue asking "Why?" about each answer you get. The answers will soon begin to converge, as numerous separate symptoms are traced back to two or three basic sources.

4. Avoid fixating on blaming individuals or specific events. Probe for systemic causes -- the ones which TRULY answer the question "Why?" When answers do focus on individuals, ask: "OK, but is that the only reason?"

The Greatest Management Principle in the World is to ask the question: What gets rewarded around here?

The One Question that Can Save Your Relationship is: What is it like to be in this relationship with me?