Learning to Respond: Start with Why

In this series, we’ve noticed our reactions to other people’s thinking and how they lead us into endless, circuitous discussions. Our reactions rarely get us what we need. Practicing self-awareness is a helpful first step, learning to drop those reactions when we can. 

We’ve explored logical fallacies, the faulty logic our mind creates to bridge two thoughts erroneously. Logical fallacies are ubiquitous. They are a difficult habit to break.

Next, we begin learning to respond.

The definition of respond is, simply, to say something. But I am using the word here to describe constructing something – a well-informed idea that is soundly buttressed by the reasons that support it.

Responding is a practice, the thoughtful, deliberative, systems-thinking crafting of shareable, usable and authentic points of view. When we respond, we nourish and support collective thinking, grounded in truth (as best we can in our circumstances).

As knowledge workers, our success depends on thinking well with others. Improving our ability to respond improves almost everything we do, including coding. Coding is structuring logic that produces action.

Time and again, I’ve seen software engineers (especially on Twitter) make giant, erroneous leaps in unsubstantiated logic when responding to someone else’s thinking. I always wonder if their code looks that lousy too. The code must, at least sometimes, suffer from their inability to construct and sustain sound logical integrity.

In the years I was transitioning from software engineering to systems architecture, there was one mistake I saw (and made) again and again. A missing skill that, as soon as I learned it, transformed my ability to get what I need. Especially when what I need is money to build something. That skill is: Start With Why.

When technologists are asked “Why do you need to do this?” or “Why does this decision matter?” the answer is invariably tech speak. We justify the need for tech tools by talking about tech tools. I have actually heard this discussion:

  • “Why do we need Kubernetes?”
  • “Because we don’t have Kubernetes.”

When we start with why, we create a clear relationship between the system’s high-priority mission, its purpose, and the idea we have for taking action. Here are a few fictitious recommendation examples using real-world missions:

“We help humanity thrive by enabling the world’s teams to work together effortlessly. Two parts of our system that update the status of tasks are experiencing intermittent downtime – they can’t scale up fast enough on Monday morning when everyone in the US logs in. By introducing Kubernetes, a tool for automatic scaling, our system can scale in real time, keeping task management fast and effortless.” – taken from Asana’s mission

“Our mission is to ensure everyone can Get There: move to all the places they want to go. Our users enjoy stellar results in high bandwidth areas like NYC and San Francisco. In areas of the US where cell service is slow or the adoption of the latest iPhone model is a few years behind, user satisfaction is low. By building a scaled-down, fall-back UI that will be served to users when our fully-functioning UI is slow to load, we can give everyone more control over their day.” – taken from Uber’s mission

“We’ve created a world where anyone can belong anywhere with an end-to-end platform that handles every part of your trip. Recent research revealed that 79% of our users need some form of transportation during their stay, especially when they first arrive. Let’s experiment. Let’s pick a couple of areas where local drivers provide Uber rides. We will offer an optional “schedule your pickup on arrival” option during the reservation process. If the results are encouraging, we can enhance local immersion and extend our end-to-end services.” – taken from Airbnb’s mission

When people are caught up in endless bikeshedding while trying to solve a problem, they are usually not envisioning the same Why. Taking a step back, connecting any discussion with the “why”, helps everyone think better together about how to move forward. And helps identify the reasons for disagreements.

As you’ll see in Simon Sinek’s short video below, starting with why matches our brain’s natural meaning-making flow. Like magic, this simple practice creates more “Yes” in circumstances full of “No”.

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

by Simon Sinek

If you want to dive deep, this book is a good start. If you’d like a shorter overview, watch the video below.

Start with Why

by Simon Sinek

A snippet from one of the most popular Ted talks, this video is a quick lesson in how to start with Why. Notice his description of “what” and “how” … that’s where most tech discussions live.

“You don’t hire for skills, you hire for attitude. You can always teach skills.

— Simon Sinek

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