Is that really your goal?

Businessman with Question

Your initial statement of the decision issue is almost always wrong! A common reason is that it focuses on the solution and not the driving need. For example, I might state a decision as, “Which cell phone to buy?” I would then say that my goal is to have a cell phone. But, in fact, what I really want is the ability to communicate away from home. There is no requirement to use cellular technology. If satellite phones were cheap or if Wi-Fi were ubiquitous, those could be solutions that meet my real need just as well. Once I focus on my real goal, the underlying objectives pop out: reliability, voice quality, coverage, and ease of use.

The secret to getting to your real goal lies in one simple word—“why.” Keep asking it until you get to the basic underlying goal. Often, as in this example, you can get to the heart of the matter in a single round. More complex decisions may require drilling down by asking “why” three times to get at the underlying need.

You will often get multiple answers when you ask “why.” This is good. You want to list all the needs and considerations driving this decision. For example, suppose your decision is which house to buy. If you are currently living in an apartment, the “why” sequence might be something like this:

“I want to buy a house.”


“A yard for the kids to play in,
distance from neighbors,
painting and decorating the way we want,
grow our own vegetables,

Keep going. Ask “why” again for some of these.

“Distance from neighbors. Why?”


This process moves you from a single goal to specific objectives.  Add drawbacks and constraints, such as cost, to your list. Now you have a solid basis for comparing alternatives. In fact, you’ve opened the door to alternatives that you might not have considered earlier.

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