I don't know about you but for me an underused word in business is ‘why’. If you've ever had the pleasure of being around young children you'll agree with me that for them it's one of the most common words used - 'Why are you doing that?', 'Why does it taste like this?', 'Why is it taking so long.'
And Gen Y, who are often referred to as the 'Why' generation, they use this adverb on a daily basis. However as we move through the ranks of a business environment, this word slowly evaporates from our vocabulary. Most likely because we’re still carrying deep rooted psychological scars from ancient times where the vast majority of us would have been servants; bowing down to our masters and refusing to question their judgment.
However at this week’s excellent Future Talent Conference hosted by Changeboard, philosopher and general legend, Alain De Botton, urged attendees to start questioning more and to "look to the large questions within Greek philosophy" to help us do so.
As a business leader I've often found myself pondering these fundamental questions:
Why do we do what we do?
Why does our work have an impact?
Why do people work with us?
Why are we recommending this solution?
And, again as De Botton recommended, I do so in an effort to identify our purpose, aligning it to human nature and thus future-proof Humm Media. Knowing what we were put here to achieve will be fundamental in our success.
Though despite this seeming like a logical thing that all business leaders should do, there are still far too many organisations who either a) are too nervous to challenge the status quo by asking ‘why’ or b) struggle to understand and communicate their purpose.
It's no surprise then that following a session with Christine Deputy (HR Director of Aviva), the delegates who spanned industries large and small from sectors such as financial services, hospitality and retail, revealed via a straw poll that very few of them felt their employees truly understood their culture, values and purpose.
However, it's the organisations who take the leap and ask the big questions, clearly defining the answers and then communicating to all of their people, which are truly driving success and, most importantly ensuring for sustainable success.
De Botton used AirBnB as a prime example of an organisation doing things right. Well known as one of the most successful disrupters we've seen recently and now recognised as the greatest hotel provider despite owing no real estate; yet the CEO believes, despite its $13 billion value, they are doing terribly.
Because? They fail to ask themselves 'why' enough. And so he's championing a new approach where they question why they do what they do (which surprisingly isn’t selling accommodation but making people happier on holiday) and then explore the things that could prevent this. When they asked the question they realised that many people who go on holiday actually don’t enjoy it as much as they should – they don't get to experience the local culture or feel lonely (regardless of what sort of traveller they are). And so AirBnB are now building a product to tackle this. Meaning they achieve the fundamental reason they set up business and, because they've tapped into human nature, they have future-proofed their organisation.
But without funds like AirBnB who can call De Botton and demand he flies to California immediately, where do smaller business start.
Easily with that one small adverb, why?
If you can get into the habit of asking why for each of your processes, your clients and products then you are on the right path. Ask why your business is in existence? Why are you different from the competition? Why do your services make an impact? Why are you working with that client? Why are you creating this product? Channel your six year old self and make these regular questions, not once a year but every few months. The question 'why' must become a guiding principle.
One of our clients, Dorchester Collection, excels in this area by asking themselves why before creating any new strategy or process. They firmly believe that every action must come from insight. It's served them well - experiencing world class levels of guest and employee engagement and growing year-on-year.
So to echo Alain De Botton, we need more philosophers in the boardroom. Though I would add they don't need philosophical degrees to be such, merely a strong desire to be inquisitive and continue to question what’s happening around them.