The whys of why not why

During my presentation about Solution Focused work in Agile at XPDays Benelux I stated that asking „why“ in coaching can be dangerous and should be avoided.

Why not why?

In a community where the Five Whys is actually one of the premier methods, I knew I was opening up for a lot of discussions. Exactly this happened and the discussions were good ones.

The purpose of this post is to add some more information on this controversial topic.

1. Agile coaching is also coaching

As I stated in a previous blog entry, agile coaching is not just coaching. It’s more: an agile coach is also a trainer, a mentor, a moderator, a facilitator and whatever role is actually needed to help a company in becoming agile. In fact, an agile coach shows all his/her agility in doing this continuous role shift, making sure the customer gets the best out of the work of the coach in each situation.

As such, there are situations that are not coaching-related where the question why has a place. In coaching, however, and especially when using a solution focused approach, the question „why“ need to be used carefully (see more below and here)

2. Solution Focused is an approach to coaching

Here’s the real deal: what do you really want to find out when asking questions? There are several objectives in coaching (intended as the art of driving a customer through a process without providing content) and the approach used for each of those is different. For example, when trying to elicit values, the typical procedure involves exactly asking „why“: „Why do you want to change the Definition of Done?“„Because we need to improve the quality of our deliverables“ (Quality in our deliverables is a value).

Solution Focused instead is about envisioning solutions instead of searching in the past, and here’s where asking „why“ can be dangerous: the question „why“ implies a rationalisation process that invariably looks in the past. This is clearly evident in a question like „why did you do X?“.

In a question like „why do you want to achieve X?“ – apparently solution focused – the issue is more subtle: the answer to such a question is usually „because I want to avoid Y/improve compared to Y/…“: defining the future in terms of differences from the past is a limiting view on the available options compared to first envisioning a future and then defining what’s different compared to the past.

3. Blamed by whys

The question why implies also a request for justification. We ask misbehaving kids why did they do that, we ask people we love why did they do something that hurts us. No wonder the question why is loaded with an emotional intensity not present in the other types of questions.

4. One more reason why

„Why can’t you just talk to your colleague?“
This is a very typical question in almost all the workplaces I saw. The reasons are usually all but rational and it doesn’t really matter whether they are real or not. The fact is, as soon as we are asking why we are eliciting these reasons and bringing them into consciousness: „Because last year during project X he made Y“ is a typical answer. How does this answer help exactly in solving the problem? Well, it doesn’t! How does this answer help in off-loading emotially the situation? It doesn’t either, actually it strengthens all the bad feelings related to the situation!

5. Why do we need why

There are places for asking why: when eliciting values, as shown before, but also when searching for the deeper meaning of something that happened in the past.

Why searches in the past, and if this is what we want we could definitely use it.

In solution focused work though, it is not what we want as we focus on the future.

6. Why there is (almost) no need for it

Anyway, the question why is usually a simple and simplistic way to ask about something. In fact, apart for the usages I stated above, it can easily be replaced by other questions that give us a richness of details that why cannot, provided we use them skillfully to get the information we need.

Let’s take the example above: „Why can’t you just talk to your colleague?“

why not ask why 2

Alternative questions would be for example:

  • „What do you gain not talking to your colleague?“ – elicits the deeper win for an action
  • „How exactly will not talking to your colleague help you achieve your goals“ – elicits a possible strategy behind a behaviour
  • „When do you expect your behaviour to change?“ – assumes the situation can change and finds out what are the conditions for the change

And so on: there are several alternatives to the question why that allow a more targeted retrieval of the information we want. So how could we ask „why“ in a better way?

7. Creative whys

Serge Beaumont has developed a great technique he uses when coaching Product Owners for linking user stories to business value. In this process asking „why“ is in fact, the central technique. Contradicting what I wrote above? Actually not: when doing so, he is actually eliciting reasons why a story should be done at all. If, by asking why, the PO reaches one of the stated business values then great, if not, either the business values need to be extended with the newly found reason or the story should simply be ditched from the backlog.

By asking why he is effectively forcing the PO to keep the stories focused to the stated value for the product: a very creative way to force convergence to the product goals!

8. Emotionally why

As children we used to ask why when discovering what was around us and we are still doing it in this discovery process that is our life. As children we needed a simple question to help us making sense of the world, because we didn’t know what to search for in the first place. As adults we have also other tools to use, so what advantages do we have in limiting ourselves to using just „why“?

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