How to get out of a rut: Three whys

Three Whys and Productivity

I had seen that Ricardo Semler TED Talk before and remember thinking it was good, but it wasn’t necessarily one of the TED Talks that stays with you for a long time (at least for me). Then I came across this post on Psychology Today that specifically talks about something Semler mentions at the 17-minute mark, which is that you can solve a lot of problems by stopping and asking yourself “why” three times in a row. And yes, this does sound a bit like Simon Sinek’s whole thing.

The Psychology Today author roots Semler’s talk in his own work, talking about Perceptual Control Theory and the Method of Levels, which is all somewhat interesting. (More at those links.) The basic idea is that human behavior, and especially goal-setting, is a hierarchy. The more abstract stuff is at the top, and the more concrete stuff is at the bottom. (I’ve written a little about this before.) To get to the top levels, you need to adjust the bottom levels — or at least think about them differently.

In a personal’s actual day-to-day personal life, this might be achievable. It’s much, much harder in a professional context.

The thing with work is, it’s very focused on deliverables. (The odd part is that deliverables get whiffed on every day, and yet that remains our singular focus.) Deliverables are a hard thing — for example, this report is due on X-Date, or you’re running a meeting on Y-Date. People get into those roles and they want to hit targets and work hard (because it’s a virtue, right?) and once that attitude takes hold, they don’t want all the fluffy shit coming in, like the meetings about “EQ” or “culture.” They want to hit their deliverables and get recognized for it and move on to the next thing. That is how most people I’ve ever worked with conceptualize work — it’s ambition-driven, not context-driven. Context is for pussies. That’s probably why I don’t get 10,000s of views on this thing.

All that said, if you asked somebody at work to deal with a problem by “a series of three whys,” they’d probably be like, “Can’t deal with this now. Running to my 1:30.” But check out how powerful it could be if you did, right? Let’s say a team missed a sales target.

Why did you miss the sales target?

It was set too high; the senior bosses don’t understand the market.

Why don’t the senior bosses understand the market?

Because they spend all their time in meetings with each other; they’re not listening to what we’re saying to them. It’s all coming from down, not going up.

Why do you think it’s all coming from the top-down?

I don’t think they really care about us.

OK. I over-dramatized the end there, sure, but check that out. We went from “missing a sales target” (common meeting or dressing-down topic) to, in the course of three questions, “Our bosses don’t care about us.” And while I did over-dramatize it, yes, it wasn’t necessarily an uncommon flow of questions, right? So three straight whys and you went from “talking about deliverables” to “talking about real issues.” That’s powerful stuff, no?

It would be hard to make it work in most orgs, though, just because of “The Busy Trap” and people not wanting to focus on soft skills. (Oh, also, no one’s ever been promoted at work for actually stopping and thinking through an issue.)

Ted Bauer

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