March 22, 2016
Enterprise Program Leadership

Why Ask Why? Why? Why?

Most of you have probably heard the term “lean,” whether it be to describe a lean / agile application development approach, a lean manufacturing method, a lean business startup mindset, or, in my case, a failed New Year’s resolution…

That meme (which I recently learned is what they are called) isn’t that far off from the position in which many companies find themselves when they embark on strategic initiatives—a perpetual state of “catch up.” You’ll often hear metrics like 70% of technology initiatives fail. How can that be? Companies, the people they employ, and the external resources who advise them are often great at coming up with impactful and innovative ideas. However, actually seeing those ideas and initiatives to fruition rarely happens. So what can you do to prevent your next transformational initiative from failing?

(1) Always Start with the Why

I would venture to guess that 50% of all initiatives “fail” before they truly get started, namely because they never truly get started. While having an idea is a starting point, organizations have to finish the “Why” phase before they can truly consider an idea as a concrete initiative. An idea’s “Why” provides a reason for being. Let’s take, for example, one of Kramer’s inventions from Seinfeld:

Ketchup and mustard in the same bottle!!


The first ”Why” is easy—“It makes so much sense! It’s so practical! It will solve an everyday problem! Let’s do it!” We’ve all seen this before, upon its initial proposal, every idea sounds like a no-brainer. Let’s implement that new CRM tool, let’s build the next Uber app, let’s harness our Big Data with Qlik or Tableau or Microstrategy. This is where 50% of businesses move ahead with their “great idea.” Onward!

(2) Ask Why (Again…and Again…)

Ricardo Semler, CEO of the Brazilian company Semco Partners, slightly altered Toyota’s concept of The Five Whys to apply it to goal setting and decision making. Ricardo advocates that for every business initiative (and really every important decision), you should ask, “Why?” three times in a row.

As Semler puts it, “By the third ‘Why,’ you don’t really know why you’re doing what you’re doing… maybe if you [ask three ‘Whys’], you will come to the question, ‘What for?’ What am I doing this for? And hopefully, as a result of that, and over time… you’ll have a much wiser future”[1]

With this in mind, let’s revisit the single-bottled ketchup and mustard. Let’s ask the second “Why,”—“Why is it such a great, practical idea?” Because we’ll sell more ketchup and mustard! That’s gold, Jerry! Gold!

But really? Will you? Here comes the hardest “Why”…the third ”Why.” “Why will you sell more ketchup and mustard if you put them in the same bottle?”

And this, my friends, is why I’m writing this article instead of sitting on my yacht squirting ketchup and mustard out of the same bottle.

Many companies never start the “Why” phase, or they don’t take the time to fully investigate the “Why” to formalize an elegant and agreed upon rationale. Lacking this cornerstone to an initiative is what often leads to failure. Conversely, not getting completely and objectively through the “Why” phase in a reasonable amount of time can cause failure too, especially in consensus building organizations.  A quick example:

Susan, the CEO, thinks our “why” for ketchup and mustard in the same bottle is to be more “green” and save plastic.  Bob, the CFO, thinks our “why” is to increase revenue.  The CFO doesn’t believe being “green” should supersede increased revenue, but the CEO disagrees.  So now we have a philosophical debate about whether a single company’s revenue is more important than its impact to the environment, and the project gets put on hold.

Asking why three times AND getting through the “Why” phase will either ensure value and organizational commitment to an initiative, or you will realize that you should kill an initiative because the ROI wasn’t there—both of these should be considered successful results for the “Why” phase!  But not having a “Why” or not getting through the “Why” can spell failure.

(3) Know Your MVP

After defining the “Why” of an initiative, the next step is obvious—get started. Easy, right? All you have to do is define the sponsors, find your subject matter experts (SMEs), create a project team, coordinate a kick-off meeting, start building requirements…ok, maybe it’s not so easy. Eric Ries, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur often credited for the Lean Startup Movement, believes “getting started” is a much more concise process. He has introduced a key concept called the ‘Minimum Viable Product’ (MVP). The MVP is a “product which has just those features (and no more) that allows you to ship a product that resonates with early adopters; some of whom will… give you feedback.”[2] The objective of building the MVP is to get a workable product to customers or end users in order to foster learning and data gathering. The “lean” approach and the concept of the MVP can really be applied to any industry, process, product, or approach. Assuming your idea/initiative successfully passed the “Why” phase, you now need to establish your MVP. Sticking with the ketchup and mustard example, your MVP might look something like this:

  1. The bottle must have two inner chambers and two dispensing tips to ensure that ketchup and mustard don’t mix until they are squeezed out of the bottle
  2. The ketchup and mustard must meet all of the same standards and guidelines as ketchup and mustard kept separately in their own bottles (e.g. they must taste the same, meet FDA guidelines, etc.)
  3. The cost to produce and distribute the end product must be comparable to the production of ketchup and mustard in single bottles

That’s it. Go get started! What are you waiting for? I know, I know…you have a day job. But you’ll get to it next week, right?

Just as soon as you get that other project done for your boss.

… And as soon as you get caught up on those e-mails from your vacation last week.

Sound familiar?

That’s where Kenway’s Enterprise Transformation Capability can help! We always start with the “Why,” helping you understand if the change is necessary and what it may mean for your organization. We conduct an assessment, resulting in recommendations and a roadmap or path forward. If the “Why(s)” tell us to move forward, Kenway’s Project Lifecycle Capability can smoothly take over to ensure that your idea that has morphed into an initiative will result in a product, and not a failure.


[1] Semler, Ricardo. “How to Run a Company with (Almost) No Rules.” Ricardo Semler:. TED, Feb. 2015. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.

[2] Ries, Eric. “Venture Hacks Interview: “What Is the Minimum Viable Product?”” Startup Lessons Learned. March 23, 2009. Accessed March 10, 2016.

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