The Mixed Blessings Of Asking “Why?”

Lessons learned as a grand juror and lean thinker

The petite grand jury met the first Wednesday of every month. Once things started rockin’ and rollin’, the frequency of meetings increased. There were 18 of us on the grand jury. The assistant district attorney also was in the room and witnesses would cycle in and out. Twenty of us locked in a small room, with 18 of us sitting on rock hard chairs. It took about 30 to 45 minutes to present a case to the grand jury. We would vote, and then start over.

I had never been on a jury, petite or otherwise. In my earlier life, I had been a litigator and, though I was called for jury duty twice, I was never picked. When the petite grand jury invitation came along, I was general counsel of a large corporation. It was inconvenient, but it was my civic duty (I did not have any valid excuses).

My office was located near the city square in the city that was the county seat. I had a three minute walk from my office to where the jury sat. On grand jury days, I would check in at the office, walk over to the courthouse, and spend three hours hearing presentments. I would go back to my office for lunch, then back to the courthouse for another three hours. Back to my office for several hours, then home. Not too bad.

The central question for the grand jury was whether to permit the prosecutor to proceed with a case (vote a “true bill”). The prosecutor did not have to produce much to get her true bill, which is why we could go through a lot of cases in one day.

As a grand juror, I learned many things. I became fluent in drug trade lingo (most cases were based on drugs or theft). I also got to know the members of the county drug task force. Because each presentment must stand or fall on its own, we spent much of the day hearing the same testimony over and over. The ADA (assistant district attorney) would ask the officer to state their name, summarize their credentials, and explain their current assignment. If the same officer testified nine times that day, we would hear the same spiel nine times.

Most of the cases were straightforward. We were not dealing with criminal masterminds. Two or three witnesses and we could vote. Some cases were a bit complicated and we heard from several witnesses. There were shootings, stabbings, and other assault cases in the mix, usually connected to a drug case. We would hear from forensic evidence specialists occasionally (at one time, I could identify the major types of drug paraphernalia).

The ADA had given us some instructions at the beginning of the grand jury’s session. Although a bit of a fiction, the grand jury itself technically controlled the process. We could ask for witnesses, ask to hear from witnesses again, and most importantly, we could question the witnesses. The ADA was there to help us.

In practice, it worked like this. The ADA would, with our permission, call witnesses and ask questions. But, at any time, we could interject questions or take over the questioning. After three months and many weeks of two or three days per week, I’m pretty sure any of us could have asked the necessary questions in a drug case.

The ADA had pleaded with us at the outset to follow one guideline. She would tell us the necessary elements of each case, but never would they include “why”. “It is human nature,” she said, “to ask why? Why did you buy the drugs, stab Joe, or run away? But why is irrelevant. The only question is whether there is evidence for each basic element of the crime. If there is, you may vote a true bill.” Note the “may” comment. As a grand jury, we could decide to vote a true bill or, despite the evidence, not vote a true bill.

To an ADA, the “why” question meant going down a rabbit hole. It was a huge waste of time. The grand jury would question the witness, often the accused, trying to answer that basic human question. Meanwhile, cases backed up.

I remember one case where the person was accused of buying drugs. The seller was an undercover police officer. The accused had bought drugs from the same officer six months earlier. So, the accused knew he was buying drugs from a police officer. “Why would you do that,” the grand jurors wanted to know. We wasted 15 minutes learning that criminals are not the smartest kids on the block.

The Power of Why

While ADAs do not like the “why” journey, it is the most powerful question in your arsenal. Most people, confronted with a problem, go into problem-solving mode. In many cases, we want that bias toward action. When faced with imminent danger, better to have an action plan than play the historian (I wonder why lions hunt people on the Serengeti…)

But, and this is a big but, after you have dealt with the problem you should go into prevention mode. Why did the problem arise in the first place (why was I on the plain at dusk when lions hunt)? This step gets skipped by most people, because they move on to the next problem. Resist the urge to skip the step, or commit yourself to a Sisyphean existence. Every day you will push that problem boulder up the hill only to confront the boulder at the bottom of the hill the next day. Prevention is better than solving the same problem repeatedly.

AI Can’t Do Why

Strangely enough, many people and most lawyers believe it is better to solve the same problem repeatedly than to prevent it. For lawyers in law firms, this is called a “revenue stream.” For people who work in companies including lawyers , it is called “job security.” I have listened to lawyers at conferences gripe about how they must deal with the same problem over and over.

This learning why process goes under many names. In lean thinking, it is called the “5 whys” — ask why five times in a row as you dig down to the root cause of a problem. In other contexts, you may hear about “after action” reviews. After you have dealt with the problem, assemble everyone and talk about what went right and what went wrong during the problem solving. You can also use that time to explore why the problem happened and how to prevent it.

Our new friend AI cannot do why. It can show you patterns and that may give you clues to the set of circumstances that exist when the problem occurs. But answering “why” those circumstances arise, unless more data will give it another pattern, is beyond AI. This is why humans + AI > humans or AI.

You Do Why (Catchy Logo: UdoY)

What is at the heart of innovation? Finding something amiss and then creating a way to fix it, over and over again. If something is amiss only once, why spend time innovating? Another type of innovation, however, is preventive innovation. Find that something amiss and then prevent it. As a business model, this approach may have a short lifespan. But, for the individual, this is winner.

We can create a new title “prevention engineer.” The role requires some perspective. No one can create a risk-free environment. Stuff happens. The cost of preventing all that stuff exceeds the value earned. Going overboard would hamstring organizations. You must take risks and sometimes those risks, which could have been prevented, will result in the bad thing happening. The key as the prevention engineer is to have balance — no one wants wildfires that burn down houses, but everyone understands the need for a campfire now and then. Remember Smokey the Bear’s admonition, “Only you can prevent forest fires!”


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About: Ken is a speaker and author on innovation, leadership, and on the future of people, process, and technology. On Medium, he is a “Top 50” author on innovation, leadership, and artificial intelligence. You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, and follow him on Facebook.