Frank Mitchell

Don't ask this question before starting a project!

There’s one question you can ask that will kill a project before it gets off the ground. It’s one of those really dangerous questions, the kind that lead to rabbit holes and lazy Sunday afternoons spent navel gazing. Here’s the question.

Why am I doing this?

To demonstrate the true derailing power of that question, I’m going to apply it to my project to build my first HF radio. Let’s ask why. Why am I building a radio?

“I want to learn how a radio works.”

It’s important not to stop at the first answer. The first answer is usually a gut reaction. It’s technically correct, but it doesn’t tell you anything. Sakichi Toyoda came up with this thing where you ask “why” five times to get at the root cause of something. Let’s ask why again. Why do I want to learn about radios?

“I want to build my own radio from scratch.”

That’s interesting. I’m stating this project from a kit, but what I really want to get out of it is enough understanding to be the guy who dreams up the circuit. This isn’t so much about building a radio as it is about teaching myself how to invent. Let’s ask why again. Why from scratch?

“I want a direct connection to what I’m communicating with.”

There’s something very immediate about pressing a key and getting a response. A radio that sends and receives Morse code is a very tactile thing. There’s no voice operated switch. You have to touch the radio to transmit. I like that feeling of physical control. Let’s ask why again. Why physical communication?

“I don’t trust my own voice.”

Most people don’t like the sound of their own voice when they hear it recorded. Mine sounds higher-pitched than I think it is. This is probably due to the fact that my ears pick up on bone-conducted frequencies while the recording only picks up on the vibrations in the air. But the crux of that response is “trust” not “like”. So let’s ask why again. Why is there no trust?

“My voice lies.”

In grade school, we did this science fair where we built a telegraph. It was a battery connected to a switch with a hand wound inductor that tapped two bits of metal together when the magnetic field got strong enough. It worked fine when we where goofing off with it at home. But it didn’t work when we reassembled it at the fair. When the judges came around and asked if it had worked before, I said, “Yes”.

This resulted in an argument with my friends as to whether non-repeatable science experiments counted or not. We ended up winning third place. Most likely due to the fact that we could explain the science behind a telegraph. But in the back of my mind I attributed it to the notion that I’d lied.

Asking isn’t always the answer

I started this line of questioning about a project to build a radio. I ended it with deep feelings around a childhood memory. Such is the derailing power of why. It turns out that Mr. Toyoda never intended that kind of questioning to be used before starting a project. It was designed as a postmortem, a way to do root cause analysis of problems.

But projects aren’t problems.

As an engineer I’m conditioned to ask why before starting a project. The time and resources that go into a project are valuable and the outcome is what’s worthwhile. Asking why before a project usually results in either a determination to go forward with the project or an emotional purging that squishes the necessity for the project in the first place.

As a designer I try to resist the temptation to ask why before a project. The outcome is only a side effect and it’s the journey that makes it all worthwhile. Asking why after a project usually results in either an emotional validation of the project’s existence or a logical analysis full of ideas about what to do differently next time.

Truthfully though, the cudely scientist in me argues this is all most likely a form of cognitive bias. And it doesn’t matter when it happens. The practice of questioning is what’s important. As my yoga teacher is fond of saying, this is an advanced practice, and you get better at it with practice.