Bring out your inner toddler to get to the route of the problem! Hari Patience-Davies explains the Five Whys technique.

My three year old has yet to enter the “Why” phase – instead he wants to know why he can’t grow up to be a steam train or why the horses at the farm don’t talk like the ones do on My Little Pony. For now he’s content to take explanations at face value – but while that makes for easier parenting, it’s not good when it comes to getting to the root of the problem.

I first learned about the Five Whys technique in a Design Thinking workshop. The idea is to keep asking Why – at least five times – until you get to a problem that is more cause than symptom.

For example:

Q: Why isn’t this project going live on Friday?
A: Because we’re behind with the build.

Q: Why are you behind with the build?
A: Because we don’t have enough developers.

Q: Why don’t you have enough developers?
A: Because there’s been a lot of sick days recently.

Q: Why have there been a lot of sick days?
A: Because the team has been working flat out for a long time and they’re getting burnt out.

Q: Why are they getting burnt out?
A: Because the environment isn’t supportive.

Q: Why isn’t the environment supportive?
A: The developers asked for flexible working hours but were turned down.

And so a cause of the problem can be seen, and a potential solution. If the team is given flexibility around their working hours, will it help with the burn out, reduce sick days and increase productivity?

This works relatively well for identifying the links between different projects and priorities, but where it can have a storytelling impact is for in helping to cut through subtext and reveal the real motivations underneath the surface.

This is a true for fiction as it is for real life. Consider this fictional example:

Q: Why is Gatsby throwing all these parties?
A: He wants everyone to come to his house.

Q: Why does he want everyone to come to his house?
A: He wants to impress them.

Q: Why does he want to impress them?
A: Because he thinks that’s how his old girlfriend will hear about him and come visit.

Q: Why does he want her to come and visit?
A: Because he’s still in love with her.

Q: Why is he still in love with her?
A: Because he’s a romantic fool.

(Great Gatsby fans feel free to come at me, it’s never been a particular favourite of mine.)

The Five Whys is a great way to try and identify underlying issues and can be a great tool for getting to know your audience. Ask yourself, why does this person care about this project? And then ask, Why? And ask again.


Image: Photo by Anna Tarazevich from Pexels

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