Why We Shouldn't Stop After One Why

By Arnie Grahl posted 11-08-2021 18:48


Imagine this: You’re at a park, and your child sees something she doesn’t understand, and asks you the dreaded question: WHY?

You offer an answer, and are met with a second, third, perhaps even fifth or sixth … but, why?

It’s about here, maybe, that you’re holding back an exasperated sigh and eye roll. But here’s the funny thing. This annoying behavior that most of us have seen and/or experienced from children, if used in the right context, can be a powerful tool for professional development. 

Now, to be certain, the methodology we are talking about for professional growth has a few important distinctions from your typical five-year-old’s monosyllabic utterance. For instance, when they ask “why” repeatedly, it’s not followed up by any kind of direction.

But when the focus is on professional development, each WHY builds off the one before it. The technique is effective because it forces you to probe deeper into the issue, the problem, or the behavior that you are looking at.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

According to Wikipedia, the technique known as Five Whys was originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda and later used within the Toyota Motor Corporation during the evolution of its manufacturing methodologies. Though they used it to understand why new product features were needed, it has been expanded to include cause-and-effect analysis to arrive at root causes of a problem.

The process is exactly as it sounds: when you’re facing a problem, you commit to asking “why” 5 times before settling on an answer. It forces you to dig deeper, beyond the “easy” answer on the surface.

(Side note: Early users set 5 as a good rule of thumb, though I suppose no harm is done if you go Six why or Seven why or all Ten why on us.)

Here’s how it works: when you ask each “why,” the answer forms the basis of the next one. The trickiest part about this is that there aren’t specific rules to follow. You kind of have to go with your gut and be willing to flow where the conversation takes you.

An example may be helpful to put this in context:

You show up for an interview, and you don’t get the job. You wash down your sorrows with a few pints of your favorite beverage (drinking responsibly of course), and think about what happened.

The easy answers sound like this:

  • “well, I guess I’m not meant to be a digital marketing expert after all.”
  • “you know what, I hate interviewing. Dog washing ain’t so bad.”
  • “I must just be having a bad day.”
  • “the chemistry wasn’t right.”

Here’s how that same situation might look using The Five Whys:

  1. Wow, I’m really upset. Why? Because I didn’t get the job I wanted.
  2. Why didn’t I get the job? Because I wasn’t prepared for the interview.
  3. Why wasn’t I prepared for the interview? I didn’t devote enough time to it.
  4. Why didn’t I spend more time preparing? I was anxious about the interview.
  5. Why was I anxious? Because I thought I didn’t deserve the job.

Now you’ve identified the root of the problem (or at least something much closer than “the chemistry wasn’t right”) and can work on making it better for the future.

That said, critics argue the method is too basic to really go to the depth needed to ensure that a problem is fixed. Common criticisms include: that users tend to stop at symptoms and not go all the way to lower-level rood causes, the technique is limited by the users existing knowledge, there is no built in support to ensure that the user is in fact asking the right why questions, result vary widely depending on the person using it, and users have a tendency to isolate on a single root cause rather than discover an interconnection of interplaying causes.

But within the context of professional or personal development, a lot of these criticisms aren’t as important. In fact, when it comes to self-discovery; its simplicity can be its beauty and its variability a strength.

Here is another example, bent more on personal growth. Suppose you are spending too much time on your mobile device or social media, and it’s affecting your emotions and commitment to others. The easy answer might be: I’ll just put my phone down more frequently.

But let’s dig deeper:

  1. Why am I spending too much time on my phone? I think I am using it to avoid anxiety like I used to do with substances.
  2. Why am I feeling so much anxiety? Over the past few weeks I’ve had multiple high-pressure challenges or decisions weighing on my mind.
  3. Why are these challenges triggering anxiety? Because I feel like I am not in the right frame of mind to prepare and overcome each challenge in a deliberate and joyous way.
  4. Why am I not in the right headspace? Because I’ve often been missing my full morning routine where I get to clear my head, learn from failures, remind myself of my core beliefs and values, and envision applying them to the day’s challenges.
  5. Why am I missing my full morning routine so frequently? Because my sleep schedule has been inconsistent, and I’ve also been allowing myself to stay up too late.

The critical piece of the process is to examine the root that you arrive at, and then spend some quality time determine what you can do about that.

The Five Whys can be adapted to almost any situation, and though I’ve given you two examples of how to use it for yourself, you can also use this technique to help others get to their root problem. Though admittedly, you’ll probably want to tell them what you’re up to before you begin with the rapid-fire “why”s.

If you’re someone who’s keen on reflection, or you’re a person who works through problems with friends, I’d speculate you’ve used this technique without even knowing it. Or maybe you do know it and use it intentionally.

Am I right? Have you done this before? If so, how’d it go?

And if not, are you willing to try it? Tell me about it.