Asking “What?” might bring more gains than asking “Why?”

We have a strong tendency, especially in the face of difficulties in our working and organisational lives to ask “Why?” Sometimes being more grounded and asking “What?”, at least as a beginning point, can provide different and more powerful insights.

A recent article in the Canberra Times raised, yet again, the spectre of too many meetings. It referred specifically to the woes of Australian public servants and the amount of time they spend in meetings they consider to be pointless or unproductive. But that is not the only place I hear people talking about time wasted in meetings.

This appears to fly in the face of someting I’ve argued for some time — that the conversation is the work. So is it true that the problem is as simple as not knowing how to do meeting efficiently and effectively? The article offers two theories:

  1. An over-enthusiasm for consulting and involving everyone.
  2. How public servants time, and I suspect this applies more broadly, is valued. Specifically by time in the office.

Doing something about both these things would undoubtedly have an impact. Although I wonder how sustainable it would be. I suspect, however, that the issues lies a bit deeper in a failure to recognise and understand how communication drives the coordination of activities across a “system”.

Not long ago I worked with a group who need to coordinate activities, involvement and communication throughout the life-cycle of a large number of projects. As part of coming to grips with what was involved we did an exercise in which they identified all the points of communication throughout that lifecycle and who needed to be involved. We then asked two questions:

  1. What would that communication need to be about?
  2. What would be the best form for that communication?

That’s when everyone began to struggle. They got there in the end and a number of valuable insights emerged but it wasn’t until they started asking the “what” questions that they got to the nitty gritty.

Increasingly I’m finding that it is the what questions, the one’s that ask us to describe what’s happening, what we are doing, what we will do etc, that get us places. The why questions and to to a lesser extent the how questions seem to lead us back into theories and idealised versions of how things should be.

The what (and the susequent who, when and where) questions tend to keep things a bit more real and keep the focus on actions and activities.


Pick one area of meeting/communication you aren’t “over the moon” about:

  1. Quickly describe what’s happening now.
  2. Then ask:
  • What do we need to communicate about?
  • Who needs to be involved?
  • When/how often do we need to be in touch?
  • Where? In person, email, phone etc?
  1. Try out any small changes that seem to make sense.

If you would like to start a conversation about the ideas presented here please contact me by whatever means suits you best.

Originally published at Phillip Bonser.