The single greatest question that can spark innovation is asking, "Why?" Five Whys is a simple technique that allows us to use the power of "why" to uncover the root cause of any problem or challenge.
How to use:
This technique can be used in any number of ways whether it’s a simple back-and-forth conversation or used in a group setting with post-it notes.
- Identify a problem or challenge statement for yourself or within a group setting. (ie. “On the way home from work, my car ran out of gas.”)
- Ask the first why. (“Why did the car stop in the middle of the road?”)
- Listen to the response and briefly reflect. Decide if this response is truly the root of the problem. Could there be something else at play? What other events may have played a factor leading up to this?
- Leading with humility and wonder, repeat the previous step, continuing to ask “why” and reflect on the response and reactions until you get through four more cycles or can’t go any further. This is known as the root cause.
- Once you’ve identified the root cause of the original problem or challenge, discuss or begin solution-storming.
Here’s a full example:
Problem statement: On the way home from work, my car stopped in the middle of the road.
First why: Why did the car stop in the middle of the road?
Response: Because it ran out of gas.
Second why: Why did it run out of gas?
Response: Because I didn’t stop for gas on the way to work.
Third why: Why didn’t you stop?
Response: Because I didn’t have any money on me.
Fourth why: Why didn’t you have any money on you?
Response: Because I lost it all last night playing poker.
Fifth why: Why didn’t you have any money on you?
Response & Root Cause: Because I’m not very good at bluffing, especially when I have a bad hand.
If you’re facilitating this as an exercise in a group setting, simply write out your problem statement and share with the group first, and then use post-it notes to capture each set of responses to the five “whys” in descending order, pausing at each “why?” to reflect and share their thinking.
All too often we jump right into problem-solving without stopping to ask ourselves if we’re solving the right problem in the first place.
When we challenge our assumptions first and start asking “why”, we’re able to get past surface-level issues or responses and dig deeper, exposing the real root cause of any situation or problem. Whether we’re having a quick dialogue or working in a group setting, getting to that root cause allows us to open the door for a much richer, more meaningful dialogue that will almost always yield an opportunity to generate valuable solutions that will answer the real problem instead of simply addressing the symptoms or effects.
Pro-tip: Sometimes getting to that root cause can feel uncomfortable or stir up some emotionally-charged thoughts. That’s perfectly normal. Always remember to be respectful of your partner or group’s sensibilities and lead with humility and wonder (not judgment) in any of your questioning!