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Why, Oh Why! Why it’s Good to Ask Why?

Meenu Iyer

Meenu Iyer

A Consultant at Vyaktitva. She jokes that she has turned grey doing Instructional Design. Her passion is to design and deliver Leadership programs that make an impact. In her books, learning should be fun and light, with serious outcomes. She is best at working with a team and is also adept at building personal connects with learners in her programs. Singing her way through the day, baking and having a good time with friends and family are her go-to stress busters.

I keep six honest serving men 

(They taught me all I knew); 

Their names are What and 

Why and When And How and Where and Who. 

This short poem by Rudyard Kipling outlines a powerful set of 6 questions that we use at both the workplace and outside. 

In my early years as a training designer, I relied on the “What” question immensely. 

I would often start work on projects with questions such as… 

What does the learner need to know? 

What content should the program include? 

What is the best way to present this information? 

Through all the numerous learning projects I designed, I was confident that I was creating highly impactful programs by addressing the “What” questions. After all, the program material looked comprehensive and highly detailed, and clients were happy with what they received. To top that, I kept 2 getting more important and interesting projects, which meant I was being recognized as a good designer. 

A paradigm shift often happens when we experience something radically different, perhaps even uncomfortable for us. Such experiences can visit you even after two decades of training design and delivery! 

When I joined Vyaktitva, I attended our 5-day Instructional Design program. Now, if you are thinking, “was this necessary for a person with a rich design experience”, well I had the same question. But looking back, it was through this program that many of my significant paradigm shifts around learning and facilitation were seeded.

During this ID program, a great emphasis was placed on the principle that businesses need learning solutions that address the most important business problems, thereby enhancing the performance of their people and business. 

Now this is not a new principle to most of us L&D professionals – after all we know we exist because businesses need their employees to do well. But there is an implicit new paradigm when it comes to building on this principle, wherein lies the secret to great learning designs. And that is, “Content has to give way to Business Needs (or Challenges) in the hierarchy of importance to the design process.” 

What truly facilitated the shift in my approach was a simple mantra – avoid donning a “solution hat”, till you have reasonably good information about the challenges, to start 3 formulating ideas about the solution. I had to start with what I will call the “detective hat”. A detective is driven by the “Why”. And therein was the change I had to make – I had to start focusing on the “Why”, and significantly more.


Let me share an example to illustrate this. One of my clients, a telecom major, engaged us to design and deliver a learning solution for their best Retail trainers at the regional circles. The requirement stated was – “We need to train our Retail curriculum trainers on how to design better training.” 

Using the “Why” questioning approach helped me understand this need and the context deeper. 

Why 1 

Why do your Retail trainers need design skills if you are building the curriculum centrally? 

Client: Because we do want them to contribute to the design process. There is a lot of local content that they need to incorporate into the overall design and that means they need 4 to understand the design principles when modifying the content. 

Why 2 

Why does the content have variations at the circle level? 

Client: There are finer nuances of Retail plans – the circles often make local changes to the standard plans that are created by the corporate team. 

Why 3 

The Retail trainer will surely be aware of the local plans. So why do they need to spend time learning skills they will perhaps not use to the fullest, if most of their responsibility revolves around delivery? 

Client: The corporate L&D team is lean and stretched. We want a lot more of the customization done by the L&D folks at the circles. I need the confidence that they will create good training material. 

Why 4 

Why would a trainer be motivated to take up additional design work given that they are already stretched? 

Client: You are right that they are very busy. But they too are looking for some freedom and some creative work. That is the opportunity. It also offers them a growth path. They can work with the corporate group on small assignments. I think the biggest motivators will be autonomy and opportunity. 

You can see that this line of questioning generated a lot of insight into the importance of this initiative for the company, the learner motivation and the depth of learning required in the domain – all extremely important aspects of the solution. 

While it seems simple to ask “Why” questions, any experienced designer knows how difficult the shift from “What” to “Why” can be. The natural inclination is to focus on content. 

The “Why” line of questioning takes time and requires patience of the designer and the client. Often business leaders resist an enquiry into these aspects as they are in a hurry or don’t see its relevance to the solution. It isn’t unusual to hear leaders say, “hey forget all this, you guys know best so give us a design. And quick!” 

Asking “Why” questions can also be a huge challenge in other ways. At times, the leader’s awareness of the pain points may be perception-driven. And to make it even more difficult, they may have strong views about the solution. Some see the “Why” questioning as too invasive. 

How do you surmount this? Simple – tell your client the “Why” of your “Why” questioning. “My intention is to understand the context and requirement better, so that I can build ideas about what the program should contain, so that it is more relevant to your learners, so that it is value for your time and money.” 

Getting the needs right is highly important to the success of any learning initiative. Allow yourselves to probe the need 6 deeper before concluding on the content of your program. Go ahead and ask plenty of those “Why” questions. And when you try this do come back and share your learning. I would love to hear back from you!

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