Defeating the Misuse of 5 Whys

Reading time ~2 minutes

I’ve tried using 5 whys techniques on many projects and with teams and individuals in a variety of situations.

It’s generally used for root cause analysis but often (I think) misused for other situations. Something about it has always bothered me.

When you see it described in theory it makes so much sense. But most examples are already solved (and I suspect refactored for post-rationalization). When you use 5 whys techniques in practice it never quite hits the mark.

In most cases where I’d have previously considered a 5 whys line of questioning for understanding cause I’ve been inclined to use an Ishikawa (fishbone) diagram instead. This allows us to dig into multiple lines of questioning and link across related areas.

19th July 2013: Output from the retrospective

But this still only works well in understanding problems, not goals and reasoning.

Thanks to a great session from Paul Field at the Cambridge Agile Coaches Camp last year – I’ve finally been given a 5 whys alternative that actually works properly outside the context of examining root causes.

Paul’s own article goes into the full detail on the lines of questioning and the techniques involved so I strongly encourage you to give this a read.

A large part of the improvement here is in replacing the question “why” with directed alternatives.

“Why” in psychotherapy (and some coaching circles) is seen as a dangerous question. From a purely human perspective it can be confrontational and seen as judgmental. A good therapist or coach will instead ask very specific questions based on context  that encourage consideration and introspection in a safe and well-judged manner.

Much like asking a child “Why did you punch little Davey in the face?”, asking “why” – particularly in challenging, negative, or political situations is unlikely to yield a well-reasoned answer. You’ll get a knee-jerk and/or self-justifying response.

Put another way. Repeatedly asking “Why” is like using a sledgehammer to open a jar of candies.  You’ll open the jar but I wouldn’t recommend putting the results in anyone’s mouth – and you’ll still have to go fishing through the damaged results to find anything of real value afterward.

Next time you’re considering 5 whys, try asking “and what will X get from that?” instead.

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