Why? The Most Powerful Word in the English Language

According to the Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary the English language contains 171,476 different words.  Add to that number approximately 47,000 obsolete words which have all but disappeared from daily use.   In all, that provides us with over 218,000 different words in which to communicate, express ourselves, make a point, or otherwise interact with our fellow man.  With all those options available to choose from, its somewhat surprising that one of the most powerful words in the English language is a mere 3 letters long – WHY.

Typically when you think of a management consultant you think of a well-educated, highly experienced professional communicating in some sort of esoteric code – full of both buzzwords as well as high letter score words from scrabble.  Consultants immediately fall into this trap, partially in a way to validate to their clients that they’re well worth the high hourly rates they charge, and partially as a way to simply keep up with their peers who also choose to communicate using similar prose.  Having grown up in a Big-4 environment, I found myself doing the same thing out of fear more than anything else.  Fear of appearing simple-minded, fear of not fitting it, and fear of not impressing the partners I worked for.

With all the pressure to speak using greater numbers of complicated words, I have found over the years that one of the most effective ways to get impactful results is to rely upon this simple, three-lettered word.  Its elegantly simple, devoid of any pretense, and amazingly powerful in its ability to cut to the chase.

My four-year old son has mastered the art of using the word why.  While he uses it as a way to understand boundaries, question authority, and learn all at the same time, it has the amazing impact of forcing me to consider why things are as they are.  Absent any good reason that comes to mind immediately I find myself uttering the same words my parents uttered to me “because I said so”.

In ancient Greek culture Socrates was one of the most powerful minds of that time yet he didn’t author countless theories, wasn’t credited with amazing discoveries, and didn’t invent anything.  Rather it was the manner in which he engaged in dialogue to discredit ignorance which became the foundation of the Socratic Method – using questions and answers to arrive at a common understanding of what is correct and incorrect.  For Socrates it was not only normal to question everything but he felt it was his duty to do so.

In a business setting, the same thing happens.  While driving process improvement or transformation the simple act of asking “Why do we do this?”  or “Why is this necessary?” can help to cut through the clutter and get to the heart of an issue related to resistance to change. When you ask why, you quickly can determine what’s really necessary, what’s perceived to be necessary, and what’s simply a thinly-veiled excuse to resist change.

By simply asking why I’ve seen highly complex business processes dramatically simplify.  Asking the question of why can help to save money, avoid unnecessary work, and deliver a more positive experience for all.

When embarking upon any technology-related deployment, process improvement, or other initiative designed to help simplify, streamline, and/or enhance your work environment, remembering to slow down and ask simple questions can deliver impacts far beyond those of any technology.