Why Why is more important than What

When trying to understand a new concept the important thing to understand is not what the concept is, but why it exists. Thereby getting to the essence of the thing in itself.

This is probably why the 5 Whys is an important tool for root cause analysis and incident investigation albeit it doesn’t fit all purposes. But if it is a sequence of burrowing down to the core of an issue, then it is probably one of the better methods of examining unknown processes.

As in the story about the newlywed couple. One evening, the husband noticed than when his wife began to prepare a roast beef for dinner she cut off both ends of the meat before placing it in the roasting pan. He asked her why she did that. “I don’t know,” she said. “That’s the way my mother always did it.” The next time they went to the home of the wife’s parents, he told his mother-in-law about the roast beef and asked her why she cut off the ends of the meat. “Well, that’s the way my mother always did it” was her reply.

He decided that he had to get to the bottom of this mystery. So when he went with his wife to visit her grandparents, he talked to his grandmother-in-law. He said, “Your daughter and granddaughter both cut off the ends of the meat when they fix roast beef and they say, ‘That’s the way my mother always did it.’ How about you? Why do you cut the meat in this way?” Without hesitation the grandmother replied, “Oh, that’s because my roaster was too small and the only way I could get the meat to fit in it was to cut off the ends.” (I’ve heard it before, but the only text I could find was from The Everlasting Tradition on Google Books)

If you don’t know the root cause you may end up doing unnecessary work at best, but most likely limiting, and in worst case counterproductive and wasteful work.

Don’t ask people what they want or do, but why they want or do it. It’s just as Henry Ford said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” They would have asked for faster horses, because horses was something they knew about, and faster or stronger would make transportation better.

In the same vein, it is just as important to learn the reason behind, when embarking on a new project with unknown entities. In particular when starting on new software project, and especially for project managers on both sides of the table. You need to know what to deliver to be able to deliver it in the first place, you can’t tell a developer what you need, if you don’t know what it is, and you cannot accept or test the thing if you don’t know how it should behave.

If a feature has to be cut it is paramount that you can argue why that doesn’t impair the end product too much.

If a feature can be implemented in multiple ways, then the simpler should be opted for. If you don’t know the essence of the feature, you don’t know the feasible ways, and you may choose a too simple solution - these are the solutions which seems to almost work.

Going back to Ford’s quote, it is important that you know what to abstract and how to abstract it, e.g. “faster horses” to “faster means of transportation” and not “faster animals” - that would lead to trying to hitch a cheetah or a bear to a buggy.

As the character Forrest Gump is accustomed to say: “Stupid is as stupid does.” - if we don’t know better, then we do stupid things. If you know why you do things, you may have a chance not to act stupid.

When knowing why as opposed to just what, then you are closer to the Ha step of Shu Ha Ri, because you already know the mechanics, and you are armed with the path. You may not know which quantum leaps you have to make to diverge to another stable level, but at least you know whether a path is perpendicular to the current flow or perhaps an ever so slightly diverging path.

On a much more pragmatic level, it is better to know why a certain color or method is chosen, especially when the time to change it comes around. Which is why the “why” is a much better comment for source code than the “what” - which should be evident by the code itself. And if you have complete memory of the history of changes, you can check if we’re going in circles.

2 Responses to “Why Why is more important than What”

  1. Björn Brynjar siger:

    Love the article ;)

    Understanding why is essential. Check out Simon Sinek take on this:


    Also, apperently there is no evidence existing Henry Ford ever said the “faster horse” quote, check out:


    All the best ;)

  2. serverdude siger:

    Ahh yes, I forgot about Simon Sinek’s great talk - and naturally he has the http://www.startwithwhy.com/ domain.

    But it fits so well if Ford had said it ;)