The "why question" is important, but the answer is more important.
According to Simon Sinek, your answer to “why” serves as “the purpose, cause, or belief that inspires you to do what you do.” Ever since Sinek inspired readers to Start with Why (not to mention his viral Ted Talk), the importance of the why question has emerged as a fundamental piece of leadership wisdom.
Yet, while appealing to the importance of “why” makes for an inspired slogan, application of the insight can get complicated. For example, most of us are familiar with the parental tendency to answer their children's “why questions” with responses like “because I said so." This version of the scenario may sound familiar:
Child: Why do I have to do my homework?
Parent: Because I said so!
The answer “because I said so” certainly serves as an immediate, circumstantial response. However, "because I said so" does not provide the kind of big-picture, purpose-oriented explanation called for in Sinek’s more inspired call to ask “why.”
The “why” question is important. But “why” is only important if it leads to meaningful, purpose-driven answers.
A purpose-driven answer to the question, “why do I have to do my homework” would speak to big-picture goals that extend beyond a given situation. As an answer, “because I said so” suggests that the answer to “why” comes down to arbitrary adherence to authority in order to avoid conflict. It is intended to shut down further discussion. The answer provides directives regarding how to act, but does not ground that “how” in values that one would want to apply across multiple situations. A purpose-driven explanation would look more like this:
Child: Why do I have to do my homework?
Parent: Because homework teaches you how to plan and use your time.
Now, the child may not exactly like this answer much more than the "I said so" response. However, as a response to “why,” the explanation speaks to long-term values and goals: The ability to plan and use time effectively represents a skill set that has long-term value.
Purposeful Explanations vs. Justifications
Another way to think of the difference is to consider the distinction between purposeful explanations and justifications. A purposeful explanation provides a value-based understanding of why something happened or why we should do one thing rather than another. A justification, on the other hand, is a description about why we are right, or probably right, to adopt one theory rather than another or one proposal for action rather than another. For example, consider the following question:
“Why buy these Nike’s?"
Justification: Because they’re a good deal.
Purposeful Explanation: Because they enable me to pursue a healthier lifestyle and thus enhance my ability to live better.
Justifications often serve to defend positions against criticism rather than root a choice or policy in some bigger cause.
Why Answers vs. How Answers
The purposeful explanation for buying the Nike's highlights another distinction between how and why: “How Answers” tend to shut down further conversation; “why answers” open up new possibilities. For example, consider this question:
Why are polar bears white?
A “how answer” would look something like this: Polar bears are white because the snow is white.
A “why answer,” on the other hand, would look more like this: Polar bears are whichever color is best-suited to survival to in their environment.
If the snow were pink, polar bears would be pink. It is not the snow, but the drive to survive, that makes the polar bear this particular color.
How questions tend to lead to single answers with no room for possibilities—the polar bear is simply white because the snow is white. "Why" questions seek bigger principles—for instance, the polar bear’s drive to survive—that open up to a range of possible outcomes: A polar bear could be many colors; it’s the principle that counts.
It’s one thing to say that successful business “starts with why”; it’s another thing to communicate the deeper purpose behind your answer.
Answering and communicating these big questions is the heart of marketing.
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