Personally, I am not satisfied with the “way we’ve always done it.” Whenever I am given an explanation of how the organization does something, I ask “why?” five times. That’s my maxim for generating new insights: “Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?” By the time I get to the fifth why, I have usually found an insight or an opportunity to improve something. By the way, every time I think of the five whys, I picture this inquisitive baby. You just know he’s about to ask “why?”
Because my maxim is simply five whys, it serves as a regular reminder for me to challenge the status quo, continue to learn, and seek new opportunities to do things differently. It also helps me ferret out risks to the business if those five whys reveal outdated assumptions about the world. If we are doing something based on old assumptions and the new reality is different, the actions we are taking are potentially wrong and we could be unwittingly damaging our business. I see it as my responsibility to find and defuse those time bombs before they blow up in our faces.
I am not the creator of “the five whys” but I loved it so much the first time I heard it I adopted it as my maxim. It is more than a concept to me though. There is a personal and emotional story behind it.
I stole “the five whys” from one of my first consulting engagement managers. He stole it from the leaders who had taught him and so on. I invite you to steal it from me if you like.
Here’s how our little interaction played out:
He and I were standing in line grabbing lunch at the client site. I explained some complex data and trends I had analyzed earlier in the day. He asked “Why?” In response I offered a thought on why those trends were occurring. He asked “Why?” again. I stopped and thought about my explanation of the trends. Again I offered my thoughts on what the implications of my prior conclusion were. He asked “Why?” a third time. I snapped. “What the hell dude?”
He then explained how asking “Why?” enough times can lead you to truly understand an issue and generate meaningful insights. He taught me how one simple question, asked repeatedly, could push me to think beyond where we had already thought. I fell in love with the concept.
I learned a lot working with that engagement manager and enjoyed my time with him. For me, it is appropriate to have a maxim based on things he taught me. It has been a maxim of mine ever since. Remember – maxims should have personal meaning for you.
Once I have used the five whys to find an insight, I rely on a second thought leadership maxim to move my thinking forward from insight to action. The maxim is “The Seven ‘So What’s?’.” To use this maxim I take that insight I found by using the five whys and I ask “so what?” seven times.
To expand upon the “so what” question, I am really saying “That is my conclusion – so what should we do about it?” Once I have a proposed action, I ask the next “so what” to move the thinking forward even further. The expansion of that question is “That is the action I should take. So what should I do next if that action is successful?” With every “so what” I ask, I push my thinking further down the path and beyond where I could previously see clearly.
Some of my possible actions that come as a result of these inquiries will be wrong but that’s okay. At least I am trying to foresee what I might do rather than sitting back and reacting to the world as it comes at me. By asking “so what?” several times I am identifying the implications of an insight to drive an action which drives the next action. Usually by the time I get to the fifth or sixth “so what?” I have identified a new idea to pursue that I had not previously considered.
Between the five whys and the seven so whats I have found more than my fair share of innovative ideas. Both of these maxims were taught to me by that same engagement manager. I get excited when I think back to when I learned them for the first time and those emotions fuel my innovation engine.
I use these maxims regularly to lead the thinking both within my organization and for my clients. These maxims help me look toward the future and generate new opportunities we can pursue. They push me past organizational inertia and create momentum toward my vision.
All leaders must challenge the status quo and guide the actions of their organizations toward constantly-moving visions. If a leader does this well, they will be the shaper of the market and other organizations will be the ones reacting to the changing marketplace. It is much better to lead the change than to be led by it.
The above is an excerpt from One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership (you can get your copy here).
– If you’re serious about being more innovative and creative, grab yourself a copy of One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership. There are plenty of suggestions in there for how you can generate breakthrough ideas. CLICK HERE to get your copy.
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