Gartner Blog Network

Why We Don’t Tell Why

by Hank Barnes  |  June 17, 2014  |  2 Comments

A while back, I wrote a post on “The Power of Why“.  It was a reminder that we can’t take for granted that both parties in a conversation, or other interaction, have the same understanding of a statement, request, or instruction.


And while it is generally agreed that explaining why is important.  We often forget to do it.  The biggest issue I see with messaging and materials that I review from technology providers in my role as a Gartner analyst is a failure to explain why.   Features or problems are discussed in detail, but the impact of those features or problems are left to the buyer to figure out.

The topic came up again after I tweeted about an article I saw about the importance of context.  I tweeted:

and an exchange with the author of the piece and a few others ensued:


As you can see, even a journalist was brought into the discussion.

So, if something is so well known, why don’t we tell why?

I tweeted one of my opinions, which is partially tongue in cheek, but may have some basis in reality.  Think about it, from the time we are little, our parents, our teachers, and many bosses get frustrated if we ask “Why?” too much.  The usual response is, “Stop asking so many questions! Just do what I told you to do!”   Does that happen in your current job?  For many, I suspect it may be occur more often than we’d like to admit (it happens less at Gartner–asking “Why?” is a key part of the research review process), I can think of lots of places I have worked where it happened too much (often the amount of acceptance of the “Why?” question seemed inversely proportional to the size of the company).

Another reason is we simply forget.   We are so close to our product or area of expertise, that we take for granted that others will understand the unstated.    We live in our problem world for our entire work day, every day.  Our customers, however, experience it only in moments.  Without that closeness, those connections, that seem so natural to us, are much harder to make.

A final possibility might be that we aren’t sure why it matters.  If this is the case,we’d better figure it out. Quick.

Whatever the reasons, we have to break the “Don’t Tell Why” habit.   Providing the added detail and context can make the difference between a successful interaction and failure.

The lean manufacturing movement, and since adopted by Lean Startups, and SixSigma take an approach called the 5 Whys.  It seeks to get to the root cause (or in our case the root value) of a problem by asking “Why?” 5 times.

As I wrote originally, force yourself to think and ask “Why” at least once, if not 5 times, whenever you are reviewing material and want to truly grasp the impact of it.  If you are creating or delivering the material, force yourself to review it to make sure you’ve answered the why question.    I’m even more confident than ever that more success will follow.


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Category: go-to-market  

Tags: communication  context  interaction  lean  lean-startup  why  

Hank Barnes
VP Distinguished Analyst
6+ years at Gartner
30+ years IT Industry

Hank Barnes explores the dynamics, challenges, and frustrations enterprises face when buying technology products and services. Using that customer-centric lens, he advises those responsible for marketing technology products and services, general managers responsible for product portfolios, and startup CEOs on next practices to drive success for their customers and their business. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Why We Don’t Tell Why

  1. Amanda Oneal says:

    Wow, great stuff. I happen to wholeheartedly agree with the concept of asking why, so much so, lately, that I am constantly checking myself when presenting an idea, broaching a subject with someone, or attempting to plain get buy-in, as it is so important that you yourself know the actual why as to why you are doing something, and your audience needs to know the why to be able to relate and hopefully agree with your proposal. I say actual why, because I feel sometimes we don’t even know the right why that we are seeking, and if we don’t ensure that we have chosen the right why, how can we come up with the right solution to a problem, for example?

    I just wrote a blog post of how this applies in marketing, and I swear this is not a plug, but if you check out my recent marketing post on my blog referenced with this comment, you’ll understand exactly what I am referring to.

    Thanks and keep spreading such important and great concepts as this one!

  2. […] buyer interest.   That mantra has been a focus of many of  my other posts, including ones on the importance of telling why and on the lousy state of […]

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