The Slippery Slope of Not Asking Why

I’d like to think I’m good at challenging the status quo.  To get regular reality checks, I spend time with college kids creating for-profit and not-for-profit businesses aimed at solving wicked problems.  They truly challenge the status quo and it is, fortunately, invigoratingly contagious.

Sometimes (most of the time?), the status quo is so deeply engrained we don’t realize it – so deeply inherent in our worldview that when confronted with it, we view questioning it as heretical.  This hit home in the span of less than a week when 4 separate ‘events’ screamed Status Quo Alert at me:

  • In finishing Raj Patel’s, The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy, one of our society and economy’s basic assumptions, the concept of private property, is challenged. Raj’s thesis is that the privatizing/enclosing of public/open spaces turned labor from being production for oneself to being an asset (human capital) for someone else. So, Why don’t we question if this concept still works in its current form, if it couldn’t be adapted to a new model, and what the consequences have been?
  • The fledgling entrepreneurs, social and ‘regular’ (for lack of a better word; I actually think it’s all social), I met during my “office hours” were trying to truly understand customers’ needs from the customers’ worldview – with their constraints, incomes, barriers and opportunities – instead of from the students’ perspective of ‘what’ these people might need.  So, Why do we assume that we know what’s best, that the way we view the world is either the ‘right’ way or the ‘best’ way?
  • My weekly article ‘catch-up’ included several on corporate culture and leadership that were all just common sense and the Golden Rule.  So,Why do we have to elevate basic decency in how we treat one another to great rules for leadership?  Has it gotten so bad that widely respected journals publish posts telling us to say thank you to employees, to behave consistently, to smile because it’s contagious? Where was I when these fundamentals of human kindness became leadership virtues?
  • Bitcoin is on a tear with it's value fluctuating as everyone tries to make sense of what it means. Last year, the ECB (European Central Bank) released its study of Bitcoin, a virtual currency and actually said, “The theoretical roots of Bitcoin can be found in the Austrian [sic] (Menger, Mises, Hayek) school of economics,” (pg. 22)!  Then they proceeded to say why Bitcoin, and its ilk, would never work.  Their assumptions are guided by increasingly irrelevant and outdated ideas instilling a need to protect the world where they think they have power (and seemingly no imagination).  The cracking of the Status Quo’s walls were loud and clear to many… except the ECB. So,Why do we assume that currencies are tied to nation-states, to physical boundaries?  We can see clearly today how the walls are crumbling.

My husband tells me I ask Why too often.  Why is how we learn, discover, and challenge the Status Quo.  In one of my first projects at Bell Labs, I was the system engineer on three different messaging services. Why did I have to create three different architectures for three different messaging services?  Ok, the media were different (voice, text, image) but simply tagging the media type in a header all the services understood meant one architecture, shared messages, and media conversion as necessary! Voila!Done and on to the next project! Result? Big revenues for AT&T and my patent on a plaque for me.

Kids ask Why all the time and we expect that from them.  At some point, it seems we stop questioning and expecting Whys. When we stop askingWhy, we risk the Status Quo becoming so entrenched that we accept it as the way it Has to be and can Only be.  So, this next week, try to ask Why just two times a day – give it a whirl and see what happens.  Next week, ask your team to ask Why twice a day and see what happens.  And the week after? You know the drill!

This originally appeared in Switch and Shift.

What If...?

For those of you that know me, you know I ask Why a lot (annoyingly so at times!).  So that's why (ha!) atBIF9, I loved what Matt Murrie is doing with getting "What If...?" out there - boldly!  We all need to ask this more.  So the next time you find yourself starting to say "no", try saying "What If..?" instead and thank Matt (and What If you followed him on twitter?)


The idea for What If…? was born on the campus of Westminster College, a small, liberal arts college in a small town in the middle of Missouri. The proud parents of What If…? are me, a Westminster professor, and Andrew R McHugh, a Westminster student. Even though Andrew was never a student in any of my classes, this did not stop us from having a wonderfully random collision. Curious minds stuck in small spaces tend to connect in the most serendipitous ways.


In entrepreneurial terms, the need for which we were creating a solution with What If…? was the need to have a more curious world. The problem with this, we soon discovered, was how few realized that an incurious populous was a problem at all; administrators, “leaders,” parents, and most everyone else tasked with shaping our collective futures seemed not to care that a lack of curiosity in people also leads to students and a citizenry that is uninterested, apathetic, and unconcerned. It was getting to the point where I began wondering if this was the point.

So, how do you tell an audience they have a need? You hold an event and prove it to them. The first What If…? Conference in February, 2012 was a half day event in which questions such as “What If There Were Carfree Cities?,” “What If Prisoners Could Be Rehabilitated?,” and “What If Video Games Could Change the World?” were asked, discussed in small groups, digested over a large meal together, and then given life well beyond the close of the Conference.

Our second conference this past March was a two day event. The first day was a three hour action workshop in which a group used a “What If…? Shift Approach” to address a current concern in higher education: “What If Technology Has Rendered the Physical Classroom Obsolete?” (Whether or not those in higher education want to listen to what the group came up with…that’s another question entirely.) The second day was a full-day conference exploring questions such as, “What If We Had Superpowers?,” “What If Women Were In Charge?,” “What If Everything Were Hyperlinked?,” and “What If I’m Wrong?

We’ve now had time to prototype and validate our product. We believe What If…? presents a unique value to people in every corner of the planet, so it is now our mission to grow a community to connect and spread it. This has been tremendously educational for us as we balance between a movement and a business. It has also been incredibly frustrating as we’ve learned that, since our startup isn’t an app that helps you pick people up at bars, we’re not exactly what investors are looking for. We’ve also learned that Venture Capitalists (in the truest sense) no longer exist. The idea that someone would actually “venture” out into the unknown and support a startup because it’s spunky, scrappy, got its shit together, and providing a needed service? Well, apparently, those people are gone (and perhaps, never existed). All of the investors we meet keep asking how we fit our conference onto the screen of a smartphone. Yet, surviving on ramen noodles and working multiple jobs on the side, we’ve managed to outlast several local startups who received awards, funding, and investment.    


Why are we willing to torture our intestines with crappy food, destroy our sleep cycles with multiple jobs, and put our lenders and renters on edge with every payment? Why are we willing to continue living in a community that consistently doesn’t get us or what we’re doing? Because What If…? is needed. For every person that scratches his or her head at What If…? instead of embracing it, for every potential investor asking us about our business plan instead of our business model canvas, for every Midwesterner wanting to know why ask “what if…?” when we should just be satisfied with “what is,” we are reminded why we’re doing this.

But, just as we’ve been made to feel we don’t quite belong in the startup world, we’ve encountered several other misfit toys along the way. Most of them come from the realm of education. Both students and educators alike have flocked to the “What If…?” mindset of curiosity, creativity, and question asking as a means of engaging and changing our world. There is a real need and an increasing outcry for education reform, at all levels.

But the needed reform doesn’t stop at schools. Our entire approach to the exchange of information is broken. Perhaps, the chief competitor for What If…?, and certainly an entity we’d like to disrupt, is TED. Not only has TED created its own class of 1%ers; but, as Andrew points out in his blog “On Ted,” its structure is fundamentally flawed and representative of an archaic, industrial model. The effective transfer of ideas and information can be done better. We deserve better. Our ideas deserve better.

What If…? Social Enterprises isn’t setting out to destroy TED; we view ourselves as a different channel on a television of ideas. We’re similar in that we’re a physical, experiential conference that disseminates its content via a variety of media (webpage, YouTube channel, blog, Huffington Post, podcasts, Facebook, and Twitter), but we take a very different approach. It is our purpose to democratize the question asking process by providing multiple platfor(u)ms to do so. And we are perfectly comfortable with being wrong along the way to getting it right.

What if the World craves your curiosity? We’d love for you to experience What If…? for yourself at our 2014 Conference