The Game of Why’s?

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Every great leader I’ve ever spoken with or read about, when looking at the way their company works, or confronting a business challenge, does the same thing: They ask “Why?” at least three times to really find an answer. Try it.

Using the the Rule of Three 

Playing The Game of Why’s is simple. Deceptively simple. On the surface it seems like “What’s the big deal?” If you honestly play it, it becomes a very BIG deal. For every answer you have to whatever statement you’re making, simply ask “Why?” and do it again and again, three times.

WHY Number 1 will feel right, and skipping right past it will drive you crazy since we love to jump to conclusions.

WHY Number 2 will usually annoy you since it’s further away from the answer you initially wanted, and often seems counterintuitive. Keep going. You’re almost there …

WHY Number 3 will always amaze you since you’re finally getting to some really interesting place you never imagined.

The Science Behind the Game

The Rule of Three Why’s is valuable because of what we learned from the neurosciences. They discovered that the past and the future are in the exact same region of the brain. Whether we are remembering the past,  or envisioning the future,  we use the same part of our brain.

The current idea is that we use past experiences to scaffold the future; we base the future on what we experienced from the past. That makes sense since we need to have a sense of security as we go through our day so we can safely (and somewhat mindlessly) get from point A to B, not fear death when eating a Big Mac, look forward to being warmly greeted upon returning home, and so on.

We need predictability which is why change is so hard for us – we are simply not wired for it. Once we get our safe and sane existence under control, chaos is not something to which we desire. Occasionally, we sometimes long for something new, different, or novel. But for the most part we like to measure out our lives in coffee spoons.

This means that the brain apparently predicts the course of future events by imagining them taking place much like similar past ones.

The Pace and Complexity of Change

There’s something inherently problematic in thinking this way in today’s world.

At a 2017 Learning Conference, a panel of CLOs from four major corporations were asked the following question “What is keeping you up at night?” All four had a similar answer: “The pace and complexity of change.”

Change has become so common and ubiquitous that we need to start thinking in new ways all the time. That means that we cannot default to the brain’s habit of using the past to predict and determine the future. We need to constantly invoke our imagination and be continuous learners.

To do that, we need to realize three things:

  1. The past and the future are exactly the same. They are both an illusion created in the same part of our mind. Makes sense to collocate the past and future since it’s an economical, energy efficient way to use neurons and synapses.
  2. Change is difficult because there is a failure of the imagination. Magical thinking is defined as imagining if I do the same thing tomorrow that did not work today, it will magically happen. Magical thinking is a good way to define the way we usually use our brains and for the most part it’s an okay system when what we’re doing is working. The dilemma in today’s world is that we need to change a few old ideas. For instance “Knowledge is power” needs to become “Sharing knowledge is power” and “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” needs to be flipped to be “If it ain’t broke, break it and make a better one.” Sleeping dogs are also in trouble …
  3. The past is not a great predictor of the future. If you ever bought a mutual fund the marketing materials always needs to legally state “Past performance is not an indicator of future outcomes.” I think that needs to become a mantra for everything we do. That’s not to say that sometimes past performance does not have the same outcome in the future. Even dice rolled twice will come up with the same number.

We simply need to be conscious of the past we imagine. stop thinking of it as real when it is really our imagination at work, and let go of it. Then we can build the future on a new vision of something never before imagined.

That act of the mind – letting go of the past and imagining a new and different future –  is at the heart of all invention, exploration, creativity, disruption, innovation, and revolution. And as I said at the beginning of this post, one good way to get there is to play The Game of Why’s and use The Rule of Three.

My new book, “Minds at Work: Managing for Success in the Knowledge Economy”, is available in print and ebook versions on Amazon and all the other book seller’s websites.



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