Ask not what you might do, but why you’re doing it

Building back higher demands tough questions of the university sector, especially its leaders. Claire Taylor explores how asking Why? can help move from the operational to the inspirational.

Claire Taylor is Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Education at Wrexham Glyndŵr University

As we lift our eyes beyond the immediate messiness of dealing with the global pandemic, it’s a good moment for us to reconsider and recalibrate the questions we are asking of ourselves and of others.

For a long time now we have been steeped in transaction and reaction – operational states that demand questions with yes/no answers, clarification of facts and the establishment of what is needed to address a specific issue or immediate problem.

Such questions typically start with “do we?” “can we?” “which?”, “who?”, “when?”, “where?”. For example: Do we have enough laptops for those staff who need to work from home? If no, then where might we get more from? When can they be delivered? Where do they need to be? Who needs what? Such an example may seem trivial now, but is indicative of a year characterised by the need to be operations-focused, practical and in rapid response mode.

We now need to reclaim the space to ask more powerful questions as we look to the future. Such questions include the How? questions and also most definitely the Why? questions. It’s easy for the sector to reel off a list of what we have learned from operating in a global pandemic but we also need to work out “how” we make the most of the opportunity we now have to take the learning forward.

Building back higher starts with Why?

Most importantly of all, we should be asking ourselves “Why?”. As Simon Sinek explains in his book Start With Why, people won’t buy into something until they understand the WHY behind it. Reflecting on the past year there are many powerful Why? questions to consider, such as: Why might a specific learning point be a good one to take forward? Why might we choose to do things differently now? Why should we retain some of the new practice that has evolved? And why should we leave behind or let go of certain practices too?

Crucially, asking Why? moves away from the functional and transactional into the realm of inspiration and innovation. This approach provides focus and alignment for individuals, teams and organisations in terms of purpose but gives some flexibility in relation to approaching situations and solutions uniquely. The ways in which an idea is developed or a problem is solved may differ, but everyone is on the same page regarding why they are seeking an outcome in the first place.

I am actually quietly confident that many across our sector will seize the moment and focus more on the Why? questions, rather than retrenching to transaction and reaction. Indeed, the recent Wonkhe Build Back Higher series of short blogs showcased some great examples of important “Why do we?” and “Why should we?” questions.

David Bell suggests some push back is needed in relation to external information requests as well as self-challenge around institutional internal bureaucracy – just why do we create such elaborate processes and systems? Paul Geatrix asks the Why? question of regulatory burden for higher education, and Tansy Jessop argues that learning and teaching going forwards should not merely focus on “what works”, but should embrace what we value as higher education communities and, I would suggest, why we value it.

And I love Alan Sutherland’s call to arms to “set yourself free from strategic plans, and release the risk register. Focus on the destination, a great student experience and life changing research – that is what matters”…if this is not about the Why? question then I don’t know what is!

Make space for Why?

But who should be asking these Why? questions? As someone in a senior leadership position I know I have a responsibility to ask Why? in respect of the external political, policy and regulatory environment as well as of strategy, systems and processes internally. But I also have a responsibility to help create the right conditions within my own organisation to allow all members of the university community the space to ask Why? questions of themselves, of others and of me. And this is a real challenge.

Do safe spaces exist in which to ask those questions? Are dialogue and challenge welcomed? And do we genuinely embrace difference and diversity in relation to the range of voices who may be asking Why? Do we even hear those voices? To be honest, I wonder and worry about how effectively we facilitate the asking of Why? across the sector and within our own organisations and I would suggest that this is something we could all reflect on as we move forward.

Someone once said “the future belongs to the curious” and now more than ever is the moment to be asking those Why? questions both within our institutions and collectively across the sector.

It’s time to seek diversity of thought, to create space to hear new and different voices, and to step beyond our comfort zone. It’s time to move our default position for thinking and questioning from reaction to reflection and from transaction to transformation. It’s time to embrace the most powerful question of all: Why?

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