Take the question "why" seriously

Shouldn't it be normal to ask the right questions before trying to address a business challenge?

Take the "why" seriously.

In May 2009, I penned my first column for PRWeek. I was roughly a decade into my marketing career, and clearly thought I knew it all. Was I ever in for a rude awakening.

Another ten years later, I realized the impetus behind my misplaced confidence was really an interest in understanding the "why" behind what my clients were asking for.

Youthful exuberance aside, learning to ask why is on the list of things I wish someone had told me to incorporate into my repertoire, right up there with "hire people smarter than you."

Since then, incorporating "why" into my strategic conversations with clients and teammates has made me a more effective professional.

Are we making decisions simply because they’re the easy ones? Is it because someone in the chain of command thought something was a good idea? Delivering campaigns just because we’re asked to isn’t fulfilling, and we’re paid to be thoughtful on the behalf of those needing our ideation and recommendations.

So why is the "why?" conversation so difficult? In an era where transparency is important and people want to believe in something, shouldn’t it be normal for professionals to ask the right questions before trying to solve a problem or address a business challenge?

We all know better, and as trite as it sounds, not going with the flow is the first step to being better for our clients and our teams.

As the choices we face grow easier, we start to scale up our work, and we quickly find ourselves deciding to simply execute programs and spend budgets.

But that’s not what we’re paid for. Our clients are trying to solve problems. Delivering solutions that nail the "why?" is what we should all want to do. So why isn’t "why" the first thing we talk about?

I’ve been watching the National Geographic "Valley of the Boom" series about the early days of tech. There’s a lot of cool stuff mentioned in the show that I grew up watching. Know what there wasn’t a lot of back then? The why.

All of it — and I mean all of it — set the table for the marketplace, the economy and the digital world we live in today. Most, and I do mean most, of those involved in the activities that the show documents were tossed aside or just couldn’t survive.

A lot of that happened, from where I sit, because there was an ignorance about the "why."

History always seems to repeat itself. But what’s important is that we learn something from it, even if we suffer a similar fate at the end of the day as those who were discarded during the dot-com boom.

We need to learn how to be comfortable with that "why" thing, and how to incorporate it into the work we do.

Asking why doesn’t have to be a hindrance, or even a speed bump. Often, it sounds like someone is having second thoughts when they’re really just admitting they’re not sure of what’s going on and want to know why.

That goes as much for investing in a questionable dot-com boom start up as it does for working on the marketing execution you’ve been asked to handle.

In other words, being an effective marketer is as much about knowing to ask "why?" as it is knowing how to design and develop the ideas our clients demand.

Tom Biro lives in Seattle and is vice president, client success for Yesler. His column focuses on how digital media affects PR. He can be reached on Twitter @tombiro or at tomb@yesler.com.

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