First ask “why” … then do it 5 times!

Its interesting how many times I see senior executives (and
maybe a few consultants like yours truly) feel like they need to have the
answers … all of the answers … and they always have to be right.  As crazy as that sounds, think about your own
situations.  Consider how many times you
have been in front of a senior exec, a board member, or a highly paid
consultant and you DIDN’T expect them to have all the answers.  No leadership team or single executive, nor a
board member or board, nor a consulting practice or a single consultant can or
ever will have all the right answers. 
It’s unrealistic and frankly not appropriate.  What is key is that we need to expect and
require those same senior executives, board members, and consultants to ASK the
right questions all the time and that process starts, and always starts by
asking “why?”
While it may seem simple enough, we often start with the two
“wrong” questions if we even start with questions versus misplaced proclamations.  Typically, we start with “who” … (“who’s in
charge?”, “who’s responsible for these results,?” “who is working with whom to
get this mess fixed?”, and the list goes on.) If we don’t start with the “who”
questions, we often go straight to the “how much” set of questions …( “how much
are we behind plan,?” how much did this budget variance cost?,” etc.)    I
want us to consider that we all need to first start by asking “why”, trying to
understand the core issue at hand before we do anything else.  “Why has this situation happened?” or “why is
this problem continuing to recur?” or why do you feel we aren’t making progress
against our goals?” are all three good places to start.  Using “why” questions is a good way for everyone,
senior execs, board members and consultants in particular, to frame the issue
at hand and to use the discipline of “questions” to work to gain common
alignment on the problem that is trying to be solved.  A HUGE step forward in all strategic work is
to define the problem you are trying to solve and to have a common
understanding of the problem at hand.
First asking “why” is key and in my experience it is pretty
rare especially at senior levels.  While
I clearly think it’s a “required” first step, it is rarely “sufficient” to do
the job at hand … thus my encouragement to then “ask why” 5 times!  While there is no magic specifically in the
number 5, there has been a lot of work done in this approach, focusing on the
best approach to get at the “root cause” of any issue and the “ask why 5 times”
is a fundamental element of that approach. 
Pioneered by Toyota in the 1950’s, this discipline/technique has been
applied broadly across industries, companies and functions and is one of those
fundamental business skills worth NEVER forgetting.  I learned this approach in early training
classes at
The Coca-Cola Company in the early 90’s and I still refer
back to them today.  The image above is a
simple tool that helps the process and I have filled quite a number of
flip-charts over the years with these “fishbone diagrams.”  To understand more of the approach, it’s
background, and application, take a look at the following link,

Regardless of the intensity of the moment or the risks at
stake, work hard to try to start with a question and hopefully that question
begins with “why.”  If you can frame the
situation with a “why” question, then gather the team to do some “digging” and work
your way to keep going, “ask why 5 times” to get underneath the veneer of the
problem at hand and have a deeper understanding and deeper alignment on the
root cause of the problem that needs fixing!