One of the shortest words in the English language can generate tremendous insights if you simply keep repeating it. Asking “why” can help you get to root causes and create ideas for fixing the biggest issues you face.
One of the most effective critical thinking tools I’ve ever come across is the five why’s.
When I was a young consultant, I was at a client engagement and I was responsible for doing a lot of analysis. One morning, I did a bunch of analysis around some items my client was purchasing.
When I went to lunch with my project manager, he said “What have you been doing today?”
I said, “Well, I was doing the analysis on this one category of spend.”
“Okay, what’d you learn?”
“Well, I think this is happening.”
“Okay, well, why?”
“What do you mean why?”
“Well, why is that happening? Why do you think that’s happening?”
I said “I don’t know. Maybe it’s this.” I then proceeded to offer my thoughts on what was causing the issue.
“Okay, well, why?”
“What do you mean why?”
“Well, why would that be happening?”
I stopped and I thought and I said “Well it might be this.”
He said “Well, why?”
I said “Oh my gosh! What’s with the why’s?”
He said “Mike, our job is to come to insights for our client. We can’t be satisfied with that first answer. We need to ask why and really understand causes. By the time you ask the fourth or the fifth why, that’s where the real insight is. That’s why I’m going to always ask you the five why’s.”
I took that away from that day and anytime I was working on analysis from that point forward, I would ask why. Why am I seeing the numbers do this? Why is that happening? Okay, well why is that happening?
Asking those five why’s will lead you to insight.
Let me offer an example. Let’s say you’re working with a senior executive and that senior executive says “Hey, our stock price just plummeted.”
“Okay, well why? Why did that happen?”
“Well, we missed our earnings.”
“Okay, well, why did that happen?”
“Well, because we were discounting our prices too much.”
“Okay, well, why were we doing that?”
“Well, because we wanted to retain our customers so we were offering bigger discounts.”
“Okay, well, why are we trying to retain customers with discounts?”
“Well, because we want to grow market share.”
“Okay, well, why do we want to grow market share?”
“Well, because that’s what the incentive plan is tied to for all our managers and business unit presidents. The bigger the market share, the bigger the bonus they get.”
“Well, what happens if we change the incentive plan?”
Boom! Big insight!
If we had just stopped at “Hey, the stock price fell and it’s because we missed earnings because we were discounting” there’s no real insight there. There’s no action to take and we don’t understand the underlying issue at hand.
When we keep asking why and peeling the issue back, we can identify what that true root cause is. Then we can solve it. Then we can have an impact on the organization. The fifth why is where that real insight resides. If we just change our discounting policy without changing the compensation plan, we might end up with other dysfunctional behaviors. The real driver of the issue is that incentive plan. If you change that, you change your business’ performance.
As you look at a problem you’re dealing with, when you see an issue, ask yourself why it’s happening, and ask why again and again and again. By the time you get to that fourth or fifth why, hopefully a new insight will pop out and you’ll be able to start solving the real problem that will have a true impact on the organization.
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