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Mind of Jacka: Why or Why Not

Mind of Jacka Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Sep 21, 2023


Oh, such a simple word — one syllable, three letters, usually one question mark. Yet it holds within that simplicity deeper meanings. When the word is used correctly, it can lead us to fuller understandings, more efficient work, and new ways to succeed.

Most of us are familiar with its use in finding root causes. The five-whys/three-whys/however-many-whys-it-takes approach is a fundamental way internal auditors determine why things have gone wrong.

For those who may be unfamiliar, one approach to determining a root cause is to continue asking why something has occurred until the controllable event or action has been discovered — the action or event which, when controlled, will keep the problem from recurring.

Now, I’ve got a lot of thoughts about how effective this approach really is. (I may wind up plaguing you with those thoughts in a later blog post. To get started, you can look up the Single Cause Fallacy.) But it is still a decent approach we can use when trying to figure out why things occur the way they do.

But “Why” is much more profound than this single application. For example, it is a question that should be asked any time you are prepared to move forward on just about anything. You are about to perform a risk assessment. You are about to start an audit. You are about to perform a test. You are about to issue a report. You are about to marry that woman. (Sorry, flashback to a time when I should have been asking “Why?” Don’t worry, Kathy, I’m not talking about you.) Ask yourself why you are taking that step.

As an example, the Farmers Insurance Internal Audit department completed a reorganization. (This seemed to be one of the pastimes we passed our time with every few years.) We worked through some consolidations and changes and came up with what we thought was a really nifty new organizational structure for the department. It was all set — the approvals were signed, the die was cast, the bridges were burned, this bird had flown, it was a Mark VII. I began discussing the changes with one of our top auditors. He asked a fascinating question, one for which I had no answer. “Why?”

It wasn’t that a reorganization wasn’t needed. (Trust me, there were problems that were being solved.) It was just that we had never really articulated an answer to the question, “Why?” And, in so doing (or not doing), we had not fully stated the problem we were trying to solve with the reorganization. And that meant there was a good chance we had not come up with a complete solution.

Knowing why a change should be made is important in ensuring the change actually accomplishes all it should.

However, none of the above is the reason I started going down this road — the road of typing, editing, and publishing this blog post. Instead…

A friend and I were discussing the metric system, primarily the United States’ refusal to move toward this far-too-logical measurement system. (I’m guessing you can guess which side I was on.) My friend went to the word we are currently dissecting, “Why?” To which I replied, “Why not?”

The conversation was much more scintillating than the monosyllabic exchange shown above. But the core point was that, by asking “Why?” my friend was asking for reasons why the status quo should be changed; by asking “Why not” I was asking for reasons why it shouldn’t be changed. And that is at the root of every discussion about change — why change something versus why leave it the same. And it is the question every internal auditor should ask every time change is in the wind.

Should we do a different test? Should we cancel that meeting? Should we focus on relationship management? Should we work from home? Should we work from the office? Should we rewrite the report? Should we start using analytics? Should we implement bots? Should we start being the control? Should we ignore a standard? Should we reorganize the department?

And, upon hearing any of these, there is nothing wrong with your first question being “Why?” The question is important to see what it is you are trying to achieve. But used injudiciously, “Why” becomes a conservatism rooted in the past. It contains within it a reverence for what has always been done and the desire to refrain from moving forward. (And there is often a hint of resistance because change is a lot of work.)

For every “Why,” “Why not” should be just as prevalent. It opens possibilities, turns the conversation to potentialities, helps find ways to make things better, allows for evolution, blazes trails, lets chances be taken, and can lead to something better.

Why should you change the way you work? Why should you change your risk assessment? Why should you reorganize the department? Why should you do anything new or different?

Why not?

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

Co-founder and Chief Creative Pilot, Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services (FPACTS), based in Phoenix.