It happens very often especially when you try to prioritize too many things that you have trouble to actually distinguish what the right top priority stuff is and why it should be done. One approach for dealing with these situations is to ask a simple question: “What problem are you trying to solve?” It doesn’t make sense to start working on a solution to a problem that is not understood. If you don’t know what the problem is, why it should be solved and why you are the right person to do it, then don’t work on it!
When someone asks for your help or advice your first question should be “What problem are you trying to solve?” Quite often with this open ended question or its short version “Why?” the other person may realize that the topic is not relevant or that there is a bigger topic behind.
Let me give you an example. Your subordinate comes to you and asks you for a new computer. Your response is “OK, let’s talk about it. Why do you want a new computer?” “Well, the one I have is old, it is slow, I have it for 5 years. I really want a new one.”
Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Except, it doesn’t really provide the answer to the question asked. What is the “deep why” behind it? So far the answer just superficially described something that may or may not be relevant. It might be that there is new software that just doesn’t run fast enough on this computer. It might be that everyone else already got a new computer so this particular employee feels left out. It might be that there is actually something wrong with the computer he is using.
When you keep asking “What problem are you trying to solve?” the person needs to really think about it. “I believe I could be much more efficient if I got new computer.” “We just got new software for creating reports on some data and it runs for twenty minutes when I just sit and wait for it to finish.” Now, this brings completely new information into the picture: “Running reports takes twenty minutes when I just sit and do nothing.” It also opens other options on how to solve the problem. It might be that a faster computer wouldn’t help at all. Maybe we need better server that hosts the database, or we may need faster network connection, or everything is fine and we just need to utilize better the time being wasted by waiting.
So let’s come back to our question. For this simple question to work, it needs to be asked in a way that doesn’t convey implicit “No”. If someone comes to you with a request and you ask this question while already having in mind a picture of big red “No”, your body language, tone of voice and urgency with which you ask the question will send across a message that you are not really interested in the answer and you just don’t want to say “No” straight away. So what to do about it? It is all about openness, consistency and trust. It is vitally important that you behave consistently in these situations, that employees even anticipate this question and know based on their past experience, or experience of their team mates, that you are genuinely interested in the answer, that you ask because you want to help them and it is important to you what they think, what their problems are and to have a solution that will be the best for them and the company.
You may enhance this method by a bit annoying trick that can help to identify the root cause of the issue and find options is to continue to ask “Why”. You can do this as long as it takes to get to the bottom of the problem. You may want to ask the “Why question” in different ways so you don’t repeat endlessly the same word. Or you may be very upfront and explain that you will now ask “Why?” several times to get really to the core issue that needs to be solved. That way you will not be seen as someone who doesn’t listen or someone who doesn’t treat others respect.
Let’s get back to our example with the computer.
You (Why 1): “What problem are you trying to solve?”
Employee: “Well, I feel that I waste lots of time waiting for the reports.”
You (Why 2): “Why do you think you are wasting time?” Now, it will probably take more time to find out the answer. The employee needs to really think about it and you shouldn’t rush him. Use the tone of voice that indicates you have the time to listen to the answer and you expect your subordinate to think.
Employee: “It happens to me often that during the day I just sit and wait for the computer to get the data.”
You (Why 3): “Why do you just sit and wait for the data?”
Employee: “Well, because it is too slow… though I could probably do something else in the meantime.”
You (Why 4): “Why don’t you?”
Employee: “I guess I just need the rest every now and then. I can collect my thoughts, close my eyes for a second and relax a bit so I can continue the work. I’m just exhausted and my head aches from the constant looking at the screen.”
Now, this paints a completely different picture. Instead of the problem with slow computer, you have here overloaded employee who feels like there is too much to do, is nervous and blames his equipment for slowing him down. He might be even guilty about resting a bit even though he needs it. If he got faster computer as he originally wanted it could very well make the situation worse.
You may still look at the situation with computer and IT infrastructure (let’s delegate this to IT department) but the biggest thing is that we should look at our internal processes and set performance expectations right with this employee. And all this just because you repeatedly asked “Why?”
Twitter type summary: “If you don’t know what the problem is, why it should be solved and why you are the right person to do it, then don’t work on it!”
Have you ever had a situation when repeating asking of “Why” question helped you to figure out a problem behind problem?