The mantra means different things to different people here. It could mean to question authority. It could mean challenge the conventional wisdom. It could mean question why we would code it like Y over X.

It could, and does, mean all of those things. For me though, I primarily use it in these two ways.

The first is to develop a deep understanding of our clients’ business. It’s normal for somebody in a business to gloss over details that seem humdrum to them - but vitally important to someone external and new to their company (us!). When meeting with clients I always find myself asking them “why is that?”. I end up getting a much better understanding of their company and sometimes it’s enough to get me excited for even grey industries. Most companies have something special if you ask “why?” enough.

The second way I use it is when developing websites. The Rye team uses “The Five Why’s”. It’s a technique developed by Sakichi Toyoda for fast problem resolution. It’s a really easy and quick way from getting clarity from a muddle. It’s the problem solving equivalent of meditation. It’s as simple as collectively asking subsequent “Why?”’s until you reach either the root problem (if one exists at all). Normally clarity comes before five, but if it takes 20 then so be it.

Here’s how that might play out:-

  • Problem: One of our sites just crashed!
  • Why? The database isn’t connecting
  • Why? MySQL crashed
  • Why? It ran out of RAM
  • Clarity: We haven’t got a sufficient server for this website anymore, it’s grown too much

Rather than getting stressed, we’re able to quickly and calmly identify the root cause and then fix it.

There’s no blame game and no distractions.

I think “why” is so useful because it’s inoffensive. You’re not judging or accusing. You’re just asking for more information. “Why is the database not connecting?”, “Why is your business struggling in this area at the moment?”.

With “why?” comes clarity.