Why is ‘Why’ so powerful?

You can change a lot if you manage to inspire a genuine commitment to the reasons behind making the change in the first place.

The power of ‘why’ is easily understood if we just consider how we ourselves handle change. ‘You need to lose weight!’; ‘You need to learn how to make pivot tables in Excel!’; ‘You need more exercise!’; ‘You need to use our style guide when making PowerPoints!’. If you want to achieve any of these things, you need to both understand and feel the ‘Why’, right?

In our part of the world, a direct order can work, but it rarely creates enthusiasm and job satisfaction. For Scandinavian companies in particular, an individual’s ability to perform at work is based on a sense of free will and of being able to influence the results themselves. Here, the goal of communication and leadership is that employees should be able to look at themselves in the mirror with a retained sense of integrity – and that they’re involved by fully understanding the ‘why’.

The power of Why

In day-to-day operations, the scenes of purpose and reason effect how we perform and how we take on everyday work, and it becomes especially important when one wants to effect a change or take a developmental step.

‘Why?’ is always an essential question, unless you’re on a construction site and someone screams ‘Duck!’. There, you will quickly learn to simply do so. But at the same construction site, an engineer asks ‘Why?’ when she’s told `we’re going to merge with the worst competitor’. And she is more likely to do a good job for the new company if she is given a good answer.

An understanding of and deeper knowledge about the underlying causes of change is required not only for the manager but for all employees. In fact, it’s essential to be able to contribute to a positive change process. If you can visualise an attractive picture of the future, you’ll feel comfortable and are more likely to join the change journey to get there.

Still, the ‘why’ is too often forgotten. The ‘what’, ‘when’ and ‘how’ are usually given priority when the ball gets rolling. However, neglecting the ‘why’ part of the big picture creates reactive behaviour in an organisation, so it is vital to keep it in mind when embarking on a change journey.

Explaining the ‘why’ can help you address basic human emotions like uncertainty, doubt and scepticism. It’s an existential issue. A well-communicated ‘why’ can unleash initiative and the desire to actively participate in the change journey.

Examples of the power of ‘why’ are found in all the companies we consider ‘visionary’ or ‘idea-driven’, where employees share the owners’ desire to create specific and real benefits for customers and/or society.

An example of how a new ‘Why’ changed an entire industry

To illustrate the strength of ‘why’, let’s take an example that’s not about any of the American digital giants that are supposedly driven by ‘vision’. The existential dimension of ‘why we exist’ has existed as a policy instrument for much longer than they’ve been around, not at least in many Scandinavian companies.

Let’s look at a company from a more traditional industry such as the bed manufacturer Hästens. They managed to change the whole business in the 1990s and lay the foundation for a fantastic success journey. Hästens went from being a small, family-owned, local multi-supplier subcontractor to being the industry’s fastest-growing bed company, with an international presence. How? The simple answer is that they decided ‘why’ they should be on the market, 100% from the customer’s point of view.

In this particular ‘why’ lies the answer to their internal transformation and positioning on the market. Their focus was shifted from manufacturing to customer needs. They wanted to create the best sleep. Their strength, besides having a rather narrow focus on checkered handmade beds, lay in their ability to getting committed to the ‘why’, both inside and outside the company.

It was a clever idea that transformed the whole bed-market narrative – for retailers and consumers alike. Hästens put sleep at the centre of the purchase of a bed. For the consumer, it became clear that ‘The Hästen isn’t a bed – it’s a relaxing and comfortable sleep,’ and ‘The best sleep is worth the price’.

The ‘unlikely’ becomes possible if you have a good explanation and reason for a change. When it comes to communication, an engaging story is often what is needed—one that is based on known needs. This story needs to have the ultimate aim of creating tangible benefits for both employees and customers.

Practical tips for the change communicator –

Look for two themes in creating and using the ‘why’ story:

  • Reasons behind the change initiatives. How does the planned change connect to business reasons, strategic reasons or cultural reasons? Shape your story with real-life examples that are relatable for the target group. A narrow, everyday explanation is easier to grasp than reasoning on a too complex level, e.g. decline in market shares, stock value drop, or our supply chain is not efficient enough, etc.

For example, let’s say you want to start a movement towards a shift in culture, and the main directive is: ‘We need to be more agile to be able to adjust more quickly to changes in the marketplace.’So ‘Why do we need to be agile?’ is one question that needs to be explained. But also ‘What does being agile actually mean in practice for us, the people in the organisation?’ This needs to be understood and exemplified by you as a communicator. Dig into the reason(s) by using the ‘five whys’ interrogation technique. Asking ‘why’ five times, each answer forms the basis for the next question, is a brilliant method to reveal the root cause to a problem.

  • The future state. The reason we change is to achieve something. Presenting an attractive creatively-moulded image of the future will have an emotional impact. The aim is to create trust, anticipation and a desire to jump aboard.

As a final note, on a corporate communication level, we can only create the overall framework of the ‘why’. How the messages are delivered is determined both by the content and the format. The passion, credibility and trust that all our change ambassadors inspire when the story is told make a huge difference. If leaders and promoters believe in the message, it will be appreciated and make the necessary impact.

So, as a communicator, ask yourself how you can make people believe in the change by explaining and visualizing the ‘why’.

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