Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Most Important Question of All

In all of my years of consulting, there is one question that I ask my clients. 

About 20% attempt to answer it.  Of that 20%, 20% of that group does a good job of answering it well.  The rest do their best and I commend them for trying.

The other 80% either say “because” (which is a non-answer), get frustrated by the question or simply don’t try to answer it at all.

It is a complex question after all, although deceptively simple in appearance.

If you can’t answer this question in regards to your personal and professional life, then little alarm bells should be going off in your mind.

If your organization cannot answer the question, then the organization is in trouble.  You may not see it yet but it is coming.

The question is:


Consider these examples:

1. Why do you believe you are here on this planet?

2. Why are you in business xyz?

3. Why does your organization exist?

4. Why do you believe your product is better than xyz?

5. Why do you believe you offer something that no one else has?

6. Why should this project that is important to you be important to anyone else?

7. Why did you consider this option when so many others were available?

8. Why do you think your teams are motivated? 

Seems like a simple question and yet when I put my strategy hat on and guide clients, it seems that this question gives them the most difficulty.

Consider this paraphrased conversation that I experienced about a year ago.  My responses are in italics.


My product is the best product in space xyz.

Why do you believe it is the best product?

Because it is.

Have you performed due diligence against competitive offerings?

No – I didn’t need to.

Why not?

Because I know my product is the best product on the market.

Hmmmm.  Ok.  Let’s change direction.  Why does your company exist?  What need does it solve?  What is its purpose?

It exists to create and promote product xyz.

Ahh … I see (now I am getting nervous of the obvious circular reference here).  Why do you believe that such a need exists – what does your research tell you?

Well, I didn’t do a lot of research.  I know this from what I have observed and what I have been told.

Why do you think you can be successful with no market intelligence or competitive analysis?

I just know it.

Ok. Why would a customer buy this product from you?

Because my product does things that the competitor products don’t do as well.

Why do you believe this if you haven’t gathered any competitive intelligence?

Because I just know.


Usually by now, they are getting agitated.

I never take their agitation personally.  I know that when the agitation sets in, the client is discovering that I have brought something to light that they already knew but didn’t want to admit or face up to.

After all, as Gerald Weinberg, author and consultant once said in “The Secrets of Consulting”:

“The Five-Minute Rule:

Clients always know how to solve their problems, and always tell the solution in the first five minutes.”

Can you answer the question of “Why”?

When you find that  your personal or professional life or perhaps the life of your organization seems to be stuck in a quagmire, can you honestly answer the question?

Do your answers stand up to close scrutiny?

If they do, good for you – you are on your way to eventually wrestling your challenges to the ground.  It may not be easy, but your eye is “on the prize” and this will keep you focused and moving forward.

If your answers do not stand up to scrutiny, take some time to explore this space.  Preferably allow someone to objectively guide you through this exploration.  This keeps your exploration honest and authentic and has the best hope of producing a better result.

If you can’t answer this question, you are only pretending to be moving closer to your personal, professional or organizational goals.

You will indeed get somewhere – it just may not be what you hoped for.

Why would you want this to happen?

Why would you allow this to happen?

Why indeed?

In service and servanthood.


For my Musings-in-a-Minute version of “The Most Important Question of All”, please click here.


  1. This is a very poignant question indeed. I agree that it should be asked in every area of your life. Many of us who are parents often ask our children WHY?...WHY did you hit your sister? WHY did you dump that water when you were told not to? WHY won't you do as you're told? We don't often accept the 'because' or 'I don't know' type of answers from our kids. But when it comes to asking ourselves these questions it's much too uncomfortable to answer them even if only to ourselves.

    Great question, Harry- Now I have to ask myself WHY for a few areas of my life;-)

  2. Harry,
    Very thought provoking blog. In addition to the "Why" question, I would add another question which Fritz Perls who created Gestalt Therapy tought to be the most important question for a client. The question is "How?"

    In addition to the question "Why do you feel depressed?" an additional question can be asked, "How do you maintain your depression?" The first inquiry opens the exploration as to the reasons a person believes something, the Second question, "how" opens doors for action.

    Your "Why" question challenges a person to think about the underlying causes. (And as we know the underlying causes create the problem.)The "How" then leads to change.

    So to take one of your examples. Why would a customer buy your product? This offers the opportunity for many reasons i.e improved life, resolves problem, entertains, etc. The next question could be "How could you make your product so that it satisfies and serves more people?

    The WHY and the HOW can be potent questions to explore and move forward.

    Why am I writing this? Because I love Harry's blogs and the mental stimulation.
    How can I incorporate this knowledge into my life? By using the why and the how today.

  3. Hi Shannon,

    Thank you for your kind comment.

    Your reference to children brings another thought to mind.

    Children are not afraid to ask these questions and do incessantly in their need to learn and grow. In their early stages, they are also not afraid to answer these questions to the best of their ability.

    As they grow older, they become more tentative when it comes to asking or answering these questions - wrapping their answers around how they think they will be perceived. They are also taught to ask fewer questions which I believe cripples them later in life.

    There is much we can learn from children when it comes to authenticity.

    Take care and create a great day!


  4. Hey Leonard,

    Thank you for your insightful response. I am doubly grateful for how you concluded your comment with your own intention around "Why" and "How".

    It is important for people to soak up and understand the "Why". Too many times in my business, people skip to the "How" because they perceive that activity trumps productivity. So they go helter skelter without understand the "Why" first, which, had they answered that question first, would have allowed them to focus their "How" intentions.

    Several people asked me today in private emails why I write these blogs and how I am able to time them so that they always arrive when they need to see them.

    I think the truth is that our journies, while different in many ways, have many common touch points.

    I feel compelled to write what moves me. I think other people are mulling over the same question at the same time. Sometimes it only takes one person to raise their hand in order to start a dialog that many wish to participate in.

    That is my "Why" - because I feel compelled to share my thoughts with the intention of starting an authentic, collaborative dialog.

    Thank you for your wonderful comments, Leonard.

    Create a great day!


  5. I can't believe that I spelled journeys as journies. :-)

  6. First off, great points brought up by Shannon and Leonard. I like the "how" question too, and I would agree with Harry that the "why" comes before the "how" (I think, depending on the situation).

    I find great power in questions. I use them on myself all the time. "Why" and "how" questions come up daily. I believe we should constantly be asking ourselves these questions. I often find myself leaving ceratin social situations and asking myself questions in the car, "Why did he act this way? How did I respond?" ... etc. Questions such as these allow us to grow deeper and have a deeper understanding of things in life. Because of that, I believe we should constantly question ourselves so that we can continue learning. I also encourage people to challenge their faith so that they may grow deeper, or whatever it may be.

    The examples listed above with the typical responses are shocking, but I have no doubt that that happens. If I recall correctly, emotions over power rational thinking on a ratio of 27:1. I think that sometimes because of this, people fall in love with their ideas, their businesses, and the way they do things too much. In the end, this "love relationships with ourselves" only hurts us. To ask, question, and seek answers grows us.

    Great blog post. I think this relates to many different areas of our journey. :)

  7. Hi Matt,

    Thank you for your kind comments. You raise the excellent point that questions help us to grow.

    When we stop asking questions, then we do in fact stop growing. In fact, when we stop asking questions, the person to whom we would have directed the questions to stops growing also.

    Why should we accept that? :-)

    Take care and create a great day!