A word to the why's

The Abraham Lincoln memorial in Washington DC
Barry Shannon

LAST week I was chatting with two people at very different stages in life. One was my three and a half year-old nephew and the other was a friend who is a car mechanic. The thing that struck me about both was that they both had the natural inclination to ask 'why' as part of their daily life (and in my nephews case, ask why a lot!)

This may seem an odd observation, but think about it; once we get past the initial desire for knowledge we all have as kids, we often tend to socially train ourselves out of this habit. We would rather not appear like we don't know the answer or risk sounding stupid instead of actually asking a question. Now I don't know about you, but if I go to a mechanic I'd want him to ask questions. I'd want him to get to the root cause, not just solve the face value problem presented. And often times when we ask why we can end up with a very different solution, and even a different problem, altogether.

For example, I recently read a piece about how there was concern back in the 80s about erosion of the Lincoln memorial in Washington. First question was: why is it eroding? Answer: because it gets power washed with too many corrosive chemicals too often. Now that could have been that, but people dared to continue the why's. Why do we need to power wash and use chemicals so much? Because of the bird droppings. Why are there so many bird droppings? Because they flock to eat the large supply of spiders. Why so many spiders? They come to feast on the vast amount of midges. Why so many midges? Because the monument is floodlit. And that's a bingo!

The answer was to change the lighting times resulting in midge numbers falling by approx. 85 per cent and a knock on back up the chain to less power washing.

Now there is much more complexity to the story than what I have just recounted, but it serves to illustrate the need to consider deeper probing towards root causes rather than just accepting the first answer.

Of course there are also other considerations. As the aforementioned mechanic once told me: fixes cannot be put off ‘sine die' There has to be a point where action is taken. A finger in the dam to stop the immediate flood, while other solutions are found if you will. You also need a good mix of people involved in the solutions team, as HR folks will tend to focus on people solutions, accountants will tend to focus on financial solutions and so on. Typically we need expertise outside our own bailiwick to get to the right answer.

We should also be able to verify and test at each stage. Is it the power washing and chemicals causing erosion? What evidence is there that the birds really flock to eat spiders etc.?

As HR people we should always ask the why's. So many times you get one part of a story and it's only after asking questions that you get to the real truth of the matter Think in 360 degree terms (you can even add in a few ‘who's' and ‘what's'). Why does this does this matter? Who does this affect, Who will be impacted? Why is this being brought up now? Why has nothing been done before? Questions should be part and parcel of the HR function.

Finally, remember that a measured approach is required for every situation, but the first hurdle is always, as Tom Jones might evidence, to be brave enough to ask why, why, why?

:: Barry Shannon ( is HR director at Cayan in Belfast

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