Why start with Why

In a small village in India, every morning at 7 AM the villagers would gather at the local temple to offer prayers and perform various rituals for the local deity. Before doing so, however, they would look for a cat, and tie it (gently) to a tree outside the temple. Once the prayers were done, they would let the cat go. This had been going on for years.

Once a traveler was passing through the village and he observed these events – the search for a cat, typing it to a tree, offering prayers, releasing of the cat. The whole cat routine aroused his curiosity. He felt sure it had a deep spiritual message. He asked one of the villagers why they did that. The villager said that that’s how it has always been. Not satisfied with the answer, the traveler asked another villager and got the same answer. The traveler was still curious and sought out the oldest person in the village, who he was sure would help him solve this riddle. And finally he got the answer he was looking for.

The elderly villager said “Many years ago the priest of the temple (who has since passed away) had a pet cat. Every morning, when the priest would be about to start his prayers, the cat would run around in the temple and get in the way of the priest. So to be able to go about his rituals uninterrupted, the priest would take his pet cat outside, tie it to the tree outside the temple, finish his prayers and then untie the cat.” Mystery solved!

I think the message of the story is clear – understanding why we do what we do is much more important than what we do!

The villagers in this story had observed the practices of the priest and followed it very well. But they never understood why the priest did what he did. It could have saved them a lot of trouble – after all catching a cat everyday can’t be easy to do.

The same goes for Agile adoptions. The journey of Understanding must start with “Why” before going on to “How” and “What”. Once this understanding exists, it may be that the implementation starts with a focus on “How” and “What” with “Why” forming the backdrop.




What happens when we adopt practices but our implementations are not rooted in values, principles, beliefs, philosophy?

  1. Change management becomes much tougher than it needs to be. Unless one is an extremely charismatic leader whom teams will follow blindly, one needs to be able to articulate and clearly communicate Why we are doing What we are doing.
  2. Not having strong foundations based on values leads to inconsistent decisions and confusion. Without values and guiding principles, decisions are likely to be merely reactions to local, transitory events.
  3. It limits our adaptability and agility. If we are faced with a new situation which makes earlier practices invalid, values can guide us to come up with relevant new practices.
  4. Balancing autonomy and alignment is tricky. Alignment on values and autonomy on practices can help strike the right balance.
  5. By simply emulating “best practices”, we may end up adopting a lot of practices. But unless they answer the “Why” question, many of these could just add to our overheads without giving us any returns. By being clear about the Why, we can pick and choose and design what suits our environment best!

Always start with Why!

Without your why you will never know how ~Anonymous


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