The omission of “why?”

Published by on April 25, 2013.
Justin Abrahms: The omission of "why"

A few years back, I worked at a company which made a very simple mistake in how they delivered product, which unduly limited the amount internal innovation: the omission of why.

The company was in the advertising space which is a morass of opaque terms like “piggyback pixels”, “real-time boom lists” and “demand-side platforms”. Contrast that with something like a music player. Most people understand how music players should work, why you might want one and, if pressed, come up with some potentially innovative new features. Advertising, on the other hand, isn’t as clear. What features does an advertiser look for in their ad buying platform?

The way we dealt with this complexity was by pushing the burden of knowledge onto a few experts within the company. These folks distilled customer desires into features and wrote up a implementation plans. When they vetted this with the others on the business-side, they gave what amounted to a very specific todo list to engineering.

This is harmful because, as a business, you’re trying to hire the best and brightest folks across your organization. By not allowing your employees to operate on the same data across the organization, you breed a culture of assembly-line workers: folks who don’t ask questions, just do what they’re told. This is not what you want the best and brightest to be doing!

The key behind solving this issue is sharing the whys behind decision. By coloring in some of the context around why a feature is necessary, you allow lateral thinking among your employees. If I, as an engineer, can accomplish the same “why” for a given story but with dramatically less work than the proposed implementation plan, that’s better for everyone involved.

At Sprintly, we address this by including the “why” as a central part of any user story. By answering why, you educate everyone else in the business of customer needs and reinforce the notion of consistently delivering value.

User story in Sprintly dashboard

Empowering people in your organization is important for increasing throughput and minimizing the need for active management. Sharing knowledge and the expression of intent (e.g the whys of something) is paramount. Without it, you’re hamstringing the development of your employees and the success of your business overall.