Getting to Why

  |   Decision Making Print Friendly and PDF

Sir Laurence Olivier was one of the greatest actors of his generation. His signature role was Hamlet, and on this night, he was magical. But when his friends raced backstage to congratulate him, they found him depressed.

Olivier was sitting on a bench looking at the floor.  He slammed his fist into his thigh again and again. After a few minutes of silence, one of his friends got up the nerve to ask, “Larry, what’s wrong? This was maybe the best performance you’ve ever given of Hamlet.”

Olivier stopped pounding his leg. He looked at his friend. Then, he said, “Yes. But I don’t know why.”

Great leaders and great performers of any kind know that one great success isn’t enough. You must learn enough from it that you can replicate your success and find new ways to succeed. We debrief to learn the why.

Analyze Both Failure and Success

Analyzing failure is important. When you analyze failure, you discover things that didn’t work so you can avoid them in the future.

But analyzing failure is only half the process. You should also analyze your successes. That way, you discover what did work so that you can do more of it.

Analyze Your Decision Process

It’s way too common in business for leaders to see a good outcome as a proof of a good decision and a bad outcome as the proof of a bad decision. That would be great if life were the same way, but it isn’t.

It’s perfectly possible to get a good outcome from a bad decision. All it takes is a little luck. And it’s possible to get a bad outcome when you made a great decision. That’s because the competition and the universe have a vote in how things work out.

It’s easy to fool yourself into believing that a great outcome meant you made a good decision. It’s easy to beat yourself up over a bad outcome even if you made a good decision.

You need to analyze your entire decision process. Look for things to avoid next time. Look for reasoning errors. Examine the way you gathered and used information.

This Is Harder Than It Sounds

This sounds easy when you write it down. In practice, it’s devilishly difficult.

As Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman said, “You are the easiest person to fool.” Once you know how something came out, it’s human nature to rearrange your memory so that you look better than you were.

Candor is essential when you’re digging down for why. Candor is hard work and ego-bruising.  Getting to why is hard, but it will make you more successful.


Learn the why behind success and failure.

Discover what worked so you can do more of it.

Discover what didn’t work so you can change what you do.

Analyze the process regardless of the outcome.

Luck always gets a vote.

It’s easy to fool yourself.

Getting to why is hard but it will make you more successful.

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