When I was a kid, I hated it when my parents or teachers asked me “why” questions: Why did (or didn’t) you do that? Why did that happen? Why were you (fill in the blank)? I wasn’t too crazy about “what” questions, either: What were you thinking? being the main one.
As I got older, I didn’t much like my bosses (and certainly not my first husband) asking similar questions. Every time someone started a sentence with “why” or “what” I just knew that I was in trouble.
Flash forward. I was now a boss AND a parent. And I had learned the value of those questions.
If you can take the pejorative out of those words, it becomes easy to understand their importance. In fact, if before we do almost anything we ask ourselves two questions—and endeavor to answer them—we will find ourselves far more effective in our work. The two questions?
- Why am I doing this?
- What do I hope to accomplish?
This really struck home when a Board Chair asked me about evaluating the organization’s ED. “She’s always really busy,” the Chair told me, “but I’m not quite sure if she is getting anything necessary done.”
It’s the motion theory of management. If I am moving fast enough, I must be doing the right things.
Try this. For the next few days, before you do pretty much anything (even, perhaps especially, things you do almost by rote), take a big breath and ask yourself the two questions. Then really consider the answers you come up with.
If you are not clear why you are doing something—or you are doing it because (a) you’ve always done it or someone above you told you to do it—and you cannot quantify what your hope to accomplish, perhaps you are simply spinning your wheels.
Before you abandon what you are doing, however, make sure you have looked at all sides. Just because you’ve always done this and haven’t always known why, doesn’t mean there isn’t a great reason to be doing it. And while being told to do something doesn’t translate into gold, there may well be good reason to follow these particular instructions.
Once you feel confident that you know the why and the what, it’s an easy jump to think about how. I’ve always liked the mechanics of how questions: How are we doing this? How can we reach our goals? How can we improve what we are doing?
When I take the time—which, alas, I don’t always—to ask these questions, I find that I am more focused, more productive and, best of all, more creative in what I am doing.
Lillian Smith was a writer who said, “When you stop learning, stop listening, stop looking and asking questions, always new questions, then it is time to die.” At the very least, it is a sure-fire recipe to keep you from doing your best.
Janet Levine works with nonprofit organizations and leaders, helping them to improve capacity, build on success and overall do the best job they can. Find out more at: http://janetlevineconsulting.com. While there, sign up for our monthly newsletter.