Transforming Business: Why Do We Stop Asking Why?


Bryan Jones

Date Published:
July 14, 2017

I’ve lived through this phenomenon first hand. The environment was new to me, sitting at my assigned seat at the cherry wood conference table for the weekly executive staff meeting. I was told very clearly that I was to stick to the presentation, answer only when asked a direct question, and never, no matter what happens, ask why! After being ushered out of the meeting when I finished, we quickly huddled for a post-meeting debrief. Everyone started asking “How do you think it went?” “What do you think he meant when he said this?” and “Did you understand what he asked us to do?” I finally asked, “Why didn’t we just ask him?”

Before the laughter died down, I realized it was a silly question to ask. Asking questions was a sign of weakness, and asking “why” was viewed as either professional embarrassment or insubordination. But I knew I would keep asking questions and wondered how this could possibly end well for my career.

Between the ages of 3 and 4 is when the questions start. Why is the sky blue? Why is it raining? Why do I have to go to bed? But why? About the time children are developing language skills they also discover curiosity, creativity and imagination. So what happens between then and now? Did a parent lose patience and say “stop asking why”? Did peer pressure from classmates keep us from raising our hands? Have we fallen into the trap set by some politicians, religious leaders and media outlets that we should accept their words at face value? Or in the case of the executive boardroom does the workplace culture suggest questioning the boss is a career-limiting move?

Whatever the cause, we may simply just start accepting things we hear or read without critical thinking and questioning. In business this can lead to just doing the same things, the same way, time after time and before you know it….we’ve always done it that way and we don’t know why!

Embrace Data-Driven Decision Making

Data analytics gives us the opportunity to change things. Now we can see things we’ve never seen before in meaningful ways. We can know exactly when, who, and what; sometimes we can even know what may be coming next. We can discover obvious patterns and relationships and things that look “odd.” Now we all have to ability to see things closer to the way they actually are. We can turn transparency and insights into business truth. We can enable decision-making based on real information. We no longer have to make decisions based solely on experience, intuition, standard reports, and PowerPoint presentations! This all sounds very exciting, but analytics can go off the rails quickly.

While transparency, insights, and plainly delivered information are now available to all, some leaders might not appreciate the loss of control that comes with it. Remember, humans are wired for survival, not truth. When insights are available and more people in the business can see them, they may begin to ask “why” when the same old decisions are made as before. “Why are we deploying our resources over there when clearly they need to be over here?” “Why are we hiring more staff instead of focusing on improving our retention rates?” “Why do we continue to wait for tips before we investigate for fraud?” “Why are we using random sampling to choose audits instead of going where we now see the risk?” “Why don’t we push this information to the front lines of the organization?”

Transformation Requires Analytics Deployment and Adoption 

In order for analytics to become fully transformative, it has to be fully adopted by the business; without it, a technical success rings hollow. If a data analyst makes the mistake of dismissing or underestimating resistance from corporate leadership (often the very same ones who demanded analytics) it can be the difference between success and failure in an analytics project. Fully developed and deployed models run the risk of abandonment as their potentially valuable outputs fall onto the deaf ears of those they were designed to help.

“In order for analytics to become fully transformative, it has to be fully adopted by the business; without it, a technical success rings hollow.”

All is not lost! With an analytics champion, a key leader, and the right tactics, the true value of analytics can be quickly realized and acted on. Most leaders believe they are making good decisions, but they often fail to ask themselves what they base their decisions on. The trick of a good data analyst is to help business leaders ask the right questions and become open to change.

There is a leadership story describing a little girl watching her mother prepare to cook a pot roast. As the mother is cutting off both ends of the roast, the daughter asked her why she was throwing away part of the meat. The mother recalled that she had learned to cook by watching her mother cook, so she decided to call her mother and ask why. Her mother laughed and said it was simply because the roasting pan she owned at that time was not large enough to fit the entire roast!

About the Author

Bryan Jones is a former federal government employee with over 31 years of experience successfully managing and leading programs and people. Bryan’s focus is to translate the value of analytics and develop an analytics business strategy for government agencies and commercial business operations. Prior to joining Elder Research, Bryan was the Deputy Assistant Inspector General for the U.S. Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General where he developed their first data analytics unit. This is where he discovered his passion: the combining of business knowledge with the technology and science of data mining to help transform the way government does business. Bryan’s education is as diverse as his career with his latest studies in leadership and management coming from the Lincoln Leadership Institute and the University of Mary Washington.