Why “why” matters

October 15, 2014

When you know why you have to do something, it is easy to do it right.

When you don’t know why, then all you can do is follow orders.
The latter is common in business. While delegating tasks to team members or subordinates, we often fall into the convenience trap of telling people what to do and what the deadline is. It is concrete information concretely described, because it can be done quickly. However, frequently we fail to explain why the deadline matters, what the value of the work is to the customer, or the customer’s customer. Since it can happen, that the task doesn’t make perfect sense, or the sense of urgency is not clear, then the person we delegated work to returns the project not as we would have liked, only as we had asked.

Explaining why the project is important or urgent or why it has to be done a certain way is time consuming. It also requires us to answer all the questions we had of the project to the client, which may or may not have been clearly answered. If there are any questions, or inconsistencies in the project, they will become equally apparent to the person we’re trying to delegate responsibility to. Answering these questions is uncomfortable and inconvenient and time-consuming, which is why we would rather just have them do the work as we said and never-mind understanding why.

Eventually, however, it will be found out if something was wrong. Either the client realises that the work is not what is needed or, at the last stage, the customer will vote with her wallet and just not buy the product. No matter how well marketed. Remember New Coke?

People prefer the taste of Pepsi so we’ll create a Coke that tastes like Pepsi! “If I’d wanted Pepsi, I’d drink Pepsi, not Coke. Give me back my Coke or I’ll start drinking tea!”

The beautiful game

The football team understands “why”. Everyone knows the goal, where the opponents goal is, where their own goal is, what role everyone plays. And everyone can, to a certain point replace each other and help, when help is needed.


Companies resemble wannabe football teams. The team is on the field but players are all in their individual tents. Instead of playing together to put the ball in the opponents goal, their only goal is now to kick the ball out of their own tent. It is up to “management” to pass the ball between tents, to move the game forward.


It is probably no surprise that teamwork works better than management of a team. Yes, sometimes it does require a manager to get players to play as a team. But once it does, it is time to get out of the way, not time to start managing.