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Asking the Deep Question of Why in Managing Change


At the beginning of each new year, we look forward to the next 12 months anew with all the possible changes they contain. We hope we can achieve these much-anticipated changes and benefit from the potential rewards. We may develop various New Year resolutions out of a sincere intention to transform ourselves: may it be enjoying a healthy breakfast each morning, catching up on much-needed sleep every night, regularly connecting with friends, taking care of our physical and mental well-being, and so on. Using the regular practice of meditation as an example, even though we may be confident of the positive effects of meditation, do we have sufficient conviction to sustain these behavioral changes not only for a few days but for every day over the long term?

Last year we discussed the possibility of implementing sustainable change—not through superficial actions on the spur of the moment, but through a fundamental embodiment of values; a change of heart and mindset. We have explored the challenges of sustaining change, not only at the individual level but also at the societal and even national level. From another perspective, it is also important to sustain change not only at the level of physical actions, but at the speech level and the mindset level. Given that physical behaviors and spoken words are expressed outwards, which can be observed and monitored, changes at these levels are easier to enforce. Changes at the mindset level, however, are subtle and much more difficult to observe. Change is therefore not only difficult to impose but also very difficult to sustain. 

Buddhist teachings argue that our minds are transformable but also very rigid. As tightly as we hold on to our material possessions, we hold on to our perceptions and conceptions even more forcefully. We defend our ideas and beliefs as if they are part of our identity. If we would like to effect sustainable change through our actions, it is paramount that we also examine the means through which we can achieve a fundamental change of values, and changes of heart and mindset. Changing our views and thought processes can be as difficult as changing whatever is defining who we are and reinventing our very individualities!

To implement change, it is common for us to go directly to the questions of what and how. These questions address change at the behavioral and speech levels. We may appear to embrace these changes on the surface, but we may still be reluctant and unwilling to accept change deep inside our mind. If we don’t believe in the change or fail to develop a high level of conviction, our determination may be easily shaken along the way. We may adopt a herd mentality, following acceptable norms or adhering to default modes without really examining why we think or act in one way or another. In other words, we are incapable of making well-thought-out choices through conscious effort. 

That is why we need to embrace change wholeheartedly in order to make change sustainable. We need to ask ourselves the tough question of why. We need to challenge the motivation behind our decisions so that we can arrive at our own conclusions and understand our own intentionality behind the change. We need to rewire our approach to thinking and acting in order to commit to real, sustainable change. In the fields of economics, public policy, or business management, research studies on decision-making have evolved over the last few decades. While early economic theories attempted to establish predictable patterns and logical mechanisms, management decisions and strategies in real life are more complex. They are dynamic, convoluted, and multi-nodal, with numerous scenarios leading to numerous possible next steps. They are not linear decision trees but condition-dependent pathways which evolve along the way.

Scholars such as Herbert Simon, a Nobel Prize Laureate and a pioneer in the field of behavioral economics, and James E. Schrager, clinical professor of entrepreneurship and strategic management at Chicago Booth Business School, pioneered research in the field of behavioral strategy. They have investigated how people actually—not theoretically—make decisions in real-life circumstances. (Schoenberger 2014) They observed that the best decision-makers in various strategic fields (such as playing chess, as well as in finance, and business) have developed processing patterns through asking incisive questions. Schrager advances this exploration by proposing a set of questions to facilitate business executives in choosing the right pattern when making strategic decisions. These questions contribute to a “representation,” “a list of key issues enumerating what really matters in a complex problem.” Schrager argues that “it’s obvious, but unless you see [the questions] you have no idea where to start.” (Schoenberger 2014) Schrager proclaims that this approach has wide applications in strategic choice. Similarly, another scholar, Edward Wrapp, observes that “top executives tend to ask perceptive questions rather than give direct orders.” (Schoenberger 2014) In other words, top executives should focus more on the why questions rather than the technical questions of howwho, when, where, and what.


Perhaps an even more interesting question is how do top executives come up with these deep, penetrating, and insightful questions. How do we know if we are asking the right questions? How do we assess their impact on decision-making after applying these sets of questions, or representations? Further empirical studies are required, but Schrager emphasizes that without asking the right questions, executives end up spending time reacting to and answering the wrong ones, ignoring the most important issues that may eventually surface over time.

While economists reflect on the importance of asking the right questions for business strategy, it is definitely worthwhile asking a broader question about the purpose of economic activities, capitalism, and capital. It is even more important to ask the bigger questions about life decisions and the motivations behind them. Hence bodhisattvas, who are wise and compassionate, are more concerned about mental volitions and conditions contributing to the consequence, instead of the results or karmic fruits. Common people like us, who fail to visualize how conditions arise dependently, worry about outcomes after the fact. Because conditions are dependent on our intentionality, our mind, and mental volition leading to all deeds, good practitioners who have long-term vision focus on mindsets and motivations. When we ask ourselves the right questions, we realize the true reasons and thought processes behind the answers. We realize what is important to our well-being and life strategies, and develop a strong conviction.


Schoenberger, Chana R. 2014. “Trying to Understand the Science Behind Strategy,” Capital Ideas, 2014 (Spring): 34–37.

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