The Five Whys
Getting to the root of it all
The Five Whys is one of those golden little nugget tools and a firm favourite in my personal Survive at Work toolbox. Why? Excuse the pun! Well, not only is it ridiculously straightforward, but it also has multiple uses and can be used in a range of scenarios.
Want to figure out why you can’t pull your finger out and get started on that big project?
Try the Five Whys.
Trying to establish why your professional development just isn’t hitting the mark?
Try the Five Whys.
Got a piece of work that’s going nowhere because of an issue you just can’t get around?
Try the Five Whys.
If you want to get to the root of any work-related issue or problem, grab the Five Whys approach and give it a go… you might be surprised!
How Does it Work?
The Five Why approach will help you in two ways:
1. It’ll help you get to the root cause of an issue – separating the symptoms from causality.
2. By helping you identify the “root cause” it will help you focus on the true “issue” that you need to resolve.
Essentially, the Five Why approach helps you get underneath the visible ‘symptoms’ of a problem down to the root cause.
It’s a little like having a sore leg following a fall. You can treat the symptom by popping a painkiller, resting up and hoping for the best; but in doing you risk failing to diagnose the root cause – a broken bone. You might temporarily resolve the issue of pain taking those tablets, but you won’t fix that leg. Alternatively, you could invest in an x-ray and identify the causal issue by spotting that break. Now you can take painkillers, rest up (treating the symptom) and put a cast on to reset the break (resolving the issue).
The 5 whys approach allows us to see beyond the ‘symptoms’ to the source of the problem. By identifying and addressing the root of our issues, we can address the causal factor once and for all… and in doing so, banish all associated ‘symptoms’.
Tell Me More!
The 5 whys approach is an iterative questioning technique. Imagine a single question, followed by an answer. One simply responds to this answer with why? With each ensuing answer, your response will be why?, which cues the next answer. The approach works by filtering answers, gradually clarifying the issue, so that by the fifth ‘why’ you’ll have reached – if not passed – the root cause.
Let me show you an example. Imagine you’re someone who lacks confidence in their presentation skills. Perhaps you’ve spent every effort improving your confidence and your presentation skills, but you’re still not getting anywhere. You turn to the Five Whys to try figure out what’s going on:
I can’t do the presentation to the team. I’m shaking at the thought of it.
Well, I’m useless at communicating; I always look a fool. I just know it’ll be awful.
I stumble when I speak and find myself tripping over my words. Everyone looks bored and I lose my train of thought.
Well, I suppose I wander off the topic a bit and repeat myself. I get so self-conscious that I lose the points I’m trying to make while I’m talking.
I have an idea about what I want to say before I go into the meeting, but then when I’m presenting I get lost and lose track of what I’m saying.
I suppose I don’t prepare like I should. I rely on my memory, which gets clouded when I’m in the room… Perhaps I should write all my points down, figure out an outline of what I want to present and rehearse it beforehand.
Okay, so this is very much an idealistic example – but it serves to nicely demonstrate the power of the Five Whys. In this instance, we see how someone could have zoomed off to address ‘issues’ with their communications skills. In doing so, they would have simply treated a symptom and not resolved the root issue of preparation. This action might have had an initial positive impact, but the core issue would have continued to pose a problem… because it remained unresolved.
However, as a result of identifying the core issue, the person can now focus their efforts and energies on their preparation – identifying what facts & figures they wanted to illustrate, detailing a presentation outline that highlighted their key points and rehearsing until it became a familiar prose rather than a mysterious nemesis. By tackling the core issue, the person puts into place a robust and sustainable remedy – and puts into place a sequence of action that resolves the issue once and for all.
You can use the Five Whys with your own personal scenarios (e.g. such as identifying a skills need or figuring out a problem that’s been nagging you) or with others (e.g. when coaching someone through a problem).
Why not apply the Five Whys to an issue you’re currently struggling with and get to the heart of what the actual issue is? You might find that the root problems are exactly what they thought they’d be… but there’s also a very good chance that you’ll be completely surprised!