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Why the Wise ask “Why?”
by Peter DeJager

In the past I’ve had the dubious pleasure and opportunity to teach people how to use either a computer or some sort of computer application. Quite often, when explaining how to do something, I have to cringe inwardly as the student starts writing down each and every step. Their goal of course, is to use these written instructions to complete the task on their own. The problem is that they seldom faced with the exact the same task again. Their written instructions are useless to them unless they know why those specific instructions were appropriate to that specific task.

Writing down every instruction is the syntactical approach to learning. It attempts to place every task into a separate little box and then capture the specific sequences of actions necessary to complete it. This strategy has its place. If we have to use a complicated device on infrequent occasions to complete the exact same task each time, then a written list of instructions is the solution. An example would be learning how to turn off a complicated alarm system.

The problem we face is that most of the tasks we need to accomplish on a daily basis, differ from day to day. They shift, they vary, they change and mutate and any list of instructions, instead of helping us, can often make things worse. We know the solution to this problem; we’ve known it since we were old enough to speak. We need to know why things work the way they do. This is the contextual approach to learning.

As children, our most commonly asked question, designed to help us understand how the world works, and not just drive our parents crazy (although that was fun), was the loaded question, “Why…?” It was closely followed by the other questions “How?”, “Who?”, “Where?” and “When?” (Reporters expanded this list with “What?” You have to go to journalism school to learn this)

I don’t know if those questions, especially the question “Why” are hard wired into our brains, but it would not surprise me, if some extremely expensive psychological study discovered this to be the case. All children, without exception, ask “Why” and we did so until our teachers and parents lost their patience and stifled our curiosity by responding with “Because I said so!”

“Why?” is the first step to wisdom. It is possible to perform highly complex tasks by rote, with no knowledge of why we’re doing what we’re doing, but the moment something unexpected happens, then we’re lost. Once our written script fails us, then we have none of the knowledge necessary to help us create a new one. On the other hand, if we know “why” we were doing what we were doing, then we have at least a fighting chance of figuring out what to do in new circumstances.

Despite the attempt by the adults of our childhood to relegate the question “Why” to the list of seven questions we must never ask in public, we all still have this inherent need to know the “Why” behind any command or instruction, especially if we’re being asked to change.

Despite the hundreds of books written on the subject of change (and the many articles you’ll find on this site) we all decide to change using the exact same process.

The process is exceedingly simple; it has to be straightforward, so that all of us can use it.
  • Step 1. We become aware of “something.”
  • Step 2. We ask ourselves if we should be concerned about that “something.” We do that by following a predictive sub-process:
    • Step i. If I do nothing in response to this “something,” what happens?
      We then decide if the result will be acceptable or unacceptable.
    • Step ii. If the outcome is deemed to be acceptable, we do nothing.
    • Step iii. If it is unacceptable, we decide that we need to do something.
      We don’t know what to do yet, but we’ve accepted that something needs to change in order to counteract the unacceptable outcome.
  • Step 3. To the best of our abilities we examine our alternatives.
  • Step 4. To the best of our abilities we narrow those alternatives down to a single choice.
  • Step 5. We implement that choice.
Now, a list of five steps and a sub-process of three steps might ‘look’ complicated, but it isn’t; each phase flows naturally from one to the other. This is exactly the process we follow when we place our hand on a hot stove and then decide whether or not to move our hand away from the heating element. It is also the exact same process we follow when we decide whether or not to buy a new car, or to quit a job to get away from an abusive boss or a dead-end career.

In short, this process is the answer to the question “Why should I change?” and it is crucial to our willingness to embrace a change. It is what determines for us, that a change is necessary. Without an understanding of the thought process involved in getting to Step 5, we are naturally extremely reluctant to embrace the choice identified in Step 5.

When we express our belief that the most important aspect of Managing Change is communication, it is the reasoning inside this process that we must communicate. When an employee “resists” a Change by asking “Why should we change?” it is the reasoning outlined above, that they want to understand.

This isn’t an unreasonable request on the part of the employee. The employee is only responding to that instinctive need to understand. An instinct which we all possess and that we do everything in our power to fulfill. The need to understand “Why?” is one of those rare things we all have in common. Recognizing that common need and fulfilling it, isn’t a complicated MBA management strategy… it doesn’t take a lot of time, or a lot of money to learn this strategy, it’s just the simplest of common sense. We thwart the need of our employees to know “Why?” at our peril.

There’s truly nothing complicated about how we decide to embrace a change. We use this process when we work through the decision to embrace a large change, such as getting married, but also when we are faced with a much smaller change, such as changing our e-mail program.

No matter what the change is, we must have (or be given) the opportunity to think through the entire process, in sequence. If we’re not allowed to step through the process – and resolve each step as we go – then we’ll strongly resist every change, even a change as trivial as changing e-mail. Being asked to “buy into” change without being able to work through all five steps of the process is the primary source of resistance to change.

I’m tempted to label the question “Why?” (and of course the associated answers), the “secret” to Managing Change, but I find it difficult to label something a secret when it’s something we’ve all known since childhood. Sometimes the solutions to big problems are so obvious that we don't believe they can be the right answer. In this case, take the time to consider why children, and the wise, ask "Why?".

Here’s what a recent client had to say about his work;

"Peter de Jager's lunchtime keynote presentation at our Professional Development Day was the highlight of the event. Peter's delightful sense of humor and approach to change management had the audience captivated for a full hour as he related every day personal experiences we all have to the management of change in the workplace. His common sense approach and ability to make it simple provided the audience with actionable knowledge in a brief, but very effective presentation. I look forward to having Peter back to present to the Southwest Ohio PMI Chapter."
--Pam Nintrup, PMP, President, Southwest Ohio Chapter, PMI. May 2005

(c) 2004 Peter de Jager - Peter is a Keynote Speaker, writer and consultant focusing on issues relating to Change Management and the Future. All Rights Reserved.

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