Inside Supply Management Magazine

Why Ask Why?

January 17, 2019

By Sarah Scudder

The assignment came by email: Write an article about the importance of asking why. It read: “What can come out of asking why? Being open to new ideas, no matter where they come from.”

I wondered: Is “asking why” connected to “being open to new ideas”, or is it a non sequitur?

The Essential Question

My father, a middle-school teacher, uses inquiry-based education theories in his classroom. The concept is that questions drive research. More accurately, one “essential question” drives research. For example, a student doing a project on global warming might discover that the essential question is, “Do humans cause global warming?” If the topic is religion, the essential question might be, “Do I believe in God?” Or if the topic is divorce, the essential question could be, “How can a child deal with his/her parents’ divorce?”

That got me thinking. What is the essential question in the print industry? Does it vary with each client? Or is there a consistent question that needs to be asked for all clients? My head became bombarded with essential questions:

Why are my team members opposed to changing the way they buy?

Why is tracking data important for an audit? If we don’t pass said audit, what will be the impact on our company?

How important is managing risk?

Why is automating the tracking of our diversity spend important?

And I realized that one essential question may not be enough.

Beyond ‘Why?’

I also determined that what matters is to ask the right questions. Some may be ethical. Others may be practical or innovative. For example:

Are we valuing one client over another?

Is everyone on the team doing their share of the work?

Are we offering creative solutions to each client, or are we using old ideas to try to solve new problems?

Are we using the best software?

Do we have the most relevant, up-to-date hardware?

Are we open to new ideas, no matter where they originate?

A blog post, “Ask Questions: The Single Most Important Habit for Innovative Thinkers,” by Paul Sloane, a speaker on innovation and creativity, emphasizes why questions matter. Let me share one part:

“Children learn by asking questions. Students learn by asking questions. New recruits learn by asking questions. Innovators understand client needs by asking questions. It is the simplest and most effective way of learning. People who think that they know it all no longer ask questions — why should they?

Brilliant thinkers never stop asking questions because they know that this is the best way to gain deeper insights. Eric Schmidt (chairman of Google’s parent, Alphabet) said, ‘We run this company on questions, not answers.’ He knows that if you keep asking questions, you can keep finding better answers.”

My sister Anna used to drive my parents crazy. I think that she caused my father’s early onset baldness. She was one of those pesky children who constantly asks “why” questions.

“Why is Sarah so tall?”

“She inherited tallness from her grandmother.”


“Because we get certain traits from our parents and grandparents.”


And so on.

Anna has spent her life asking questions. She graduated at the top of her class at the UCLA School of Law and is now an attorney. I think Anna’s inquiring mind is the key to her success.

For supply management practitioners, asking why (or who, what, where, when and how) can also lead to success. Whether the question is why a stakeholder is opposed to change, how to implement a new system or which low-cost provider to select, we learn something we didn’t know.

If we make assumptions or ask only surface-level questions, we won’t discover the real cause of a problem. Or we won’t understand what’s driving a decision-maker’s actions or behavior. And if we don’t know or understand what needs to be solved, we can’t craft our pitch persuasively or offer the ideal solution. Asking why enables us to learn what’s truly important — and we can craft our pitch in a way the decision-maker cannot refuse.

Asking why also promotes the idea of being open to new ideas, no matter where they come from. It’s important to evaluate what we are doing to see if there’s a new or better way. Getting stuck in a routine is dangerous. If we sit back and let things happen as they always have, our competitors will pass us by — while taking our clients and sales. Plus, when we will stop being open to new ideas, we stop being innovators.

Thus, it’s imperative to ask these essential questions — and many more:

Why does someone buy from you over your competition?

Why should a stakeholder spend the time and effort to allow you to resource its program?

Why will this new supplier add value over our existing supplier?

Asking the right questions can help us achieve success in all aspects of supply management. Be sure to ask questions — all day, every day.

Sarah Scudder is president of Procureit5, a print management services company. She is based in Petaluma, California.