Asking Why

February 7, 2017

Remember when you were 5 and asked "Why" about 1,000 times in a row until your parents completely shut down?

Yeah, me too. I've never stopped asking why, but many of us have. "Why" is important for personal growth, but also critical for business clarity and growth.

Last week, I was reminded about Why from two different sources:

  1. Re-reading Eric Reis's "The Lean Startup" and
  2. watching Simon Sinek's TED Talk, "Start with Why -- How Great Leaders Inspire Action".


Simon Sinek's TED Talk

After watching this quick video you'll smack your forehead and say to yourself, "That's so obvious. Why didn't I think about it that way?!"

It's pure genius!

He basically says that we normally come at things from the What and the How, not the Why, but that people are not wired that way; that people operate from the Why perspective first. That our brains need the Why to establish trust and to feel safe. The How and the What can then flow from the Why. 

In marketing: people buy from people they know and trust. Lead with Why.

Check it out:

When I turned this on Animus Rex, it was very interesting.

The What and the How:
"We make world-class websites with a group of smart, talented people using Eskort a CMS/platform we created and by going through a proven process to helps us suss out the detail needed to create websites that are authentic, fast, mobile-friendly, blah, blah, blah..."

Okay, great. Lot's of companies do that. So what?!

The What and the How are often commoditized so it's nearly impossible to position yourself as unique or different in any way.

The Why, however, can be very interesting. The Why injects humanity.

A long time ago I realized that websites come and go. What we make today will be gone in 5 years (probably less). To me (and infused into our culture), the real motivation. The real payoff. The real reason we get out of bed in the morning is to see our clients succeed and the people we work with grow both personally and professionally. It's relationships that matter. Relationships are the only things that last. Our purpose is to make them look good!

In the end, genuine caring and customer service drive us - not making websites. We'd have the same "job well done" approach if we installed solar panels for a living. It's just who we are.

Starting with Why helps to drive the narrative and creates a reason for the What and the How to exist. The Why creates trust and connection. The Why is what feels right to our emotional brain and allows our cognitive brain to then make sense of it all.

Have you asked why you or your organization does what it does? Why *you* get out of bed in the morning? Try not to slip into the what, how, who, or where and really focus on core motivation, core belief, core philosophy.

It might be hard, but it's also fun and energizing - and it will help you to differentiate yourself authentically.


Eric Reis's book is also fantastic!

He talks about how to be innovative both as a startup and as an established company. In many ways, Animus Rex is a 17-year-old startup because as the Internet evolves, we do too. Innovate or die. We've reinvented ourselves several times and are doing so again. So I've been reading a lot lately on the subject.

One of the techniques he describes, "The 5 Whys," is borrowed from Lean Manufacturing, originally pioneered by Taiichi Ohno who developed the Toyota Manufacturing Process. "The 5 Whys" simply states that to uncover the root problem, ask Why 5 times. It's more difficult than it sounds and almost always uncovers a human process error.

For instance:

  1. Why is the website down? Because the web server is non-responsive.
  2. Why is the web server non-responsive? Because the motherboard unexpectedly died.
  3. Why did the motherboard die? Because it was not replaced according to a strict maintenance schedule.
  4. Why wasn't it on a strict maintenance schedule? Because nobody is in charge of keeping or reviewing that schedule on a regular basis.
  5. Why isn't anyone in charge? Because management did not prioritize it and was focused on the new part of the platform.

That scenario happened on a legacy part of our system not too long ago, so it's fresh in my memory. It did not affect a lot of customers and luckily happened off hours, but it was a good wake up call.

What seemed like a technical error at first, was in fact, human error. My error. Not my server technician's error. Facing that truth is not always easy, but it does uncover the root cause. And knowing is half the battle because then you can do something about it.

It's easy to scapegoat someone else. It's much harder to take responsibility and do so all the way down the chain. 

A simplified version is:

  1. Why did that happen?
  2. What can we do so that it doesn't happen again?

Try it on something small and then work up to larger issues. You may not always like what you see, but it will help uncover the root cause and, given the proper support and empowerment to change the system, will bring your team closer together.


Most companies ask What, How (and sometimes Who), but asking Why is a harder question to answer - and the answers aren't always what you'd like to hear. But with honesty, accountability, and empowerment to make the process better, asking Why can transform your company. It has ours. 

Many thanks to Eric and Simon for inspiring a new round of asking Why. I always enjoy a swift kick in the pants!

Be well,
- Todd

If you have any comments, questions or just want to say hi, please email me at


All the Good Stuff

Start with Why -- How Great Leaders Inspire Action

The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses

Taiichi Ohno Wiki Page

The Lean Startup Website

Other books I've enjoyed recently

Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living

Ready Player One: A Novel
(Yes, I'm a geek!)