By, Lou Quinto, Executive Coach and Speaker
“Why?” is such an easy question to ask. I suppose that’s why it’s a child’s favorite question.
Having raised two daughters, I remember going through a period in each of their lives when it seemed the only question they knew was, “Why?” At first, it was cute because I viewed it as their thirst for knowledge. I also have a theory that it is an innate human trait for each new generation to garner as much information from the previous generation in order to seamlessly perpetuate life and our society. Children are natural problem solvers. They keep asking “Why?” until they have gleaned all the information available.
Child: “Why do I have to go to school?”
Parent: “To learn.”
Child: “Why do I need to learn?”
Parent: “So you can grow up to be smart.”
Child: “Why do I need to be smart?”
Parent: “So you can get into college.”
Child: “Why do I need to go to college?”
Parent: “So you can get a good job.”
Child: “Why do I need a good job?”
Parent (Now exhausted with this exercise): “Because Daddy says so!” OR “I don’t know, go ask your Mom!”
Child: “Oh! OK!”
Mission Accomplished! I now know as much as Dad on the subject of why I have to go to school…
This technique is actually a tool of good critical thinkers. There is a name for it. It’s called the “Five Whys.” It’s a basic process to gather information to solve a problem by asking the question “Why?” five times, or until there is no more new information available. This is most useful in identifying the root cause of most problems.
When my youngest daughter, Tess, was born, I remember my older daughter holding her new baby sister and looking up at me and saying, “Dad, we’re gonna have to teach her everything.” I laughed because my older daughter, Caitlin, was only 6 at the time. The fact that she thought she was at a point in her life where she believed she already knew everything didn’t escape me. As time went on and she reached her teenage years the point that she did know everything – and I no longer knew anything – was a frequent topic of intense debate between us! Caitlin stopped asking, “Why?” because she assumed she knew why!
I think every parent remembers that night when they went to bed, and their child considered them the smartest person in the world only to wake up the very next morning and find that during the night that same child had arrived at the conclusion that they were being raised by idiots! Ah, those cherished memories of raising children!
The fact is, most – if not all – of us stopped asking “Why?” as often as we should a long time ago. Today, this prevents us from gathering good information that helps get to the real cause of our problems. Some people refer to the process as “peeling apart the onion.” Each peel reveals a new layer. Or, you can equate asking Why? five times to those egg-shaped Russian dolls where you open one doll and it reveals another doll…. And another…. And another…. Until you get to the last doll that is the smallest of them all.
Root causes are similar to that last Russian doll – small, simple, and most times easy to handle.
In my work as a critical thinking skills executive coach, I have encountered that most people or teams focus on problems as the first doll that they see and don’t do a good job of asking questions – such as “Why?” – to open it up to reveal the next doll. This happens for a variety of reasons. The three root cause reasons are:
- Overrated Intuition – Individuals assume they know what the root cause is and therefore, there is no need to ask any more questions. In your gut, you believe you know the root-cause and you jump immediately to generating solutions.
- Time – In order to keep up with our fast-paced business environments and demand for high productivity individuals see questions leading to more information that eventually spins into analysis-paralysis. So again, there is the tendency to spring into identifying potential solutions. Usually, these solutions only address the symptoms of the problem and the root-cause continues to wreak havoc and be disruptive.
- Ego – Many people view asking “Why?” as highlighting a personal knowledge deficiency. “If I ask ‘Why?’ others will discover I don’t know and that will tarnish my image as a manager or subject matter expert and I will lose the respect I need to lead.” To which I reply, “Get over it. If you knew everything you wouldn’t be sitting behind that desk. You’d be on a yacht in the Caribbean enjoying your millions because you have all the answers to every business problem in the world.”
Whatever your reason may be for not asking “Why?” more often, get over it! Get in the habit of asking “Why?” You will find the benefits – especially when working with others – will exceed just gathering more information. It will help:
- Increase collaboration within your teams or work groups because they will come to know that you value their input and won’t be quickly dismissed.
- Your co-workers – and family members – will feel more comfortable expressing their points of view around you.
- It will make you humble and appear less arrogant.
- And finally, you will learn so much more then you do now.
So, when you’re done reading this, ask yourself; “Why don’t I ask ‘Why?’ more often?” Then take steps to do so!
Lou Quinto has been working with companies and their associates internationally for over the past 25 years primarily in the area of critical thinking and communication skills. He is a Master Coach and Keynote Speaker for Action Management Associates in Plano, TX and a Senior Consultant on the Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness team for Executive Development Associates in Oklahoma City, OK. You can read more of his insights on this blog, Metacognition or you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Originally from New Jersey, today Lou resides in Indianapolis, IN.