Ask the why question unapologetically

Before we start jumping in building a product or finding a solution, we need to take a pause and ask, why should we solve this problem.
Solving the right problem is more important than finding the right solution.


A long while ago in ancient India, the son of a very wealthy grocer asks his father as to why despite being his only son, he has still not handed over the reins of the business to him and still relies on the old manager. The grocer comes up with a rather novel method to make him understand his predicament, the grocer asks the son to call the shop and find out what merchandise has landed on that day. The son calls and then answers, the father then asks him to find out how much of merchandise has landed in the shop, then the son makes another call and gives him the answer, he then asks him to find out the cost of the merchandise that has arrived and the son makes another call and gives him the answer, then after a few more questions the son is exasperated. Now the grocer calls the wise old manager and asks the same question, the manager makes one call and then gives the grocer the complete information as to what has arrived, how many of each item has arrived, what time, the cost and even what the employees in the shop intend to do with the things. There may be many variations of this story, but they all lead towards the same thing, getting to the bottom of things by asking relevant questions.

Curiosity & questioning:  the reason behind many discoveries

The greatest of human discoveries and inventions have come about because of a questioning mindset and curiosity. If Sir Issac Newton was like anybody else, he would have just picked up the apple which fell from the tree and eaten it, but his mind questioned him, why the apple fell down and from this question came the laws of gravity. Similarly, when Archimedes got into his bathtub he noticed the level of water rising, his mind probably questioned him, why the level of water rose when he got into the tub and that lead to his eureka moment. Asking questions is needed to understand problems, seek knowledge, information and even maybe the ultimate truth of our existence.

Cultures encouraging questioning

The ability to ask the right questions is essential for any professional success in today’s workplace, the Japanese who are known for their business acumen have even come up a concept called the      5-why technique or the root cause analysis theory. This concept is very simple yet powerful. It suggests that to get to the root of any problem we need to ask the why question 5 times. This will help us get to the root of the problem rather than jump to conclusions based on apparent causes. Once we get to the root cause, then we can put our minds to get the solution – only then the solution will be sustainable.

Indian culture always encouraged questioning and dialogue. During the times of the Mahabharata, it is said, the youngest member in the court or audience was allowed to speak first so that they don’t get intimidated or obliged to go with the opinion of the elders who speak first. However, this tradition of ours seems to have eroded with the advent of British rule and their education system. The new system discouraged asking questions to produce servile clerks who would just do the master’s bidding. Now, almost 75 years after the British have left India, we still have a fear of asking questions. I’m sure many of us at some point of time have prefaced our questions with a sorry during a meeting or discussion, even though many bosses issue instructions such as “please ask as many questions as you want”, “there are no stupid questions” etc. So, all of us need to get one thing clear, you should ask questions unapologetically for professional and personal success.

Apologizing for asking questions not only reflects poorly on you but it can also act as a damper for the entire team.

Apologizing for asking questions not only reflects poorly on you but it can also act as a damper for the entire team.  Here’s why:

  1. Many of us worry that asking questions would disrupt the flow of a meeting or slow down the decision-making process. This is one reason why many of us shy away from asking questions even though we and the entire team would benefit from the answer. Also, sometimes our questioning will free others to ask their questions which could contribute to a healthy debate and ultimately lead towards achieving the goals of the organization. However, if you apologize for asking questions it leads to the belief that asking questions is wrong and limits the team’s thinking capacity.
  2. Some of us are worried that asking questions makes us appear foolish in front of the group, this thinking is negated by the great Chinese sage Confucius who says “ he who asks a question is a fool for a minute whereas he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever”. If you don’t understand something, the best thing to do is ask questions unapologetically, you may appear foolish at the time, but you will learn the answer.
  3. An adult’s attention span is very low, more so when someone is lecturing us on some topic. Most of the information tends to go over our heads, and we remember only a small amount of it. In a meeting, if all of us are engaged and people are asking questions unapologetically, chances of something valuable and useful coming of the discussion go up manifold.
  4. Generally, most people tend to overestimate their knowledge or intelligence. We assume that we understand concepts when someone is explaining it to us during meetings, it is only when we try to execute it or explain it to others, do we realize our shortcomings and knowledge gaps. The best way to ensure we don’t suffer such knowledge gaps is by asking questions, it not only helps you but also the silent majority who are too embarrassed to ask questions in the group. When you apologize for asking questions, you tend to discourage others who may want to ask questions.

Understanding a concept and getting to the root of it, is the basis for a sound and solid organization and the only way to do it is by asking questions. So, the next time you are in a meeting and need any clarity on the subject being discussed, just go ahead and ask the WHY question unapologetically.