The 5 Whys (or however many you need to ask) is a great technique for generating common understanding, and can be used in two particular modes.

Firstly, it’s a good way of understanding the underlying cause of a problem and applying fundamental corrective action. For example:

Problem – Coursework was late being handed in.

Why? Because our deadline did not work well enough.

Why? Because many students didn’t view our deadline as being important enough.

Why? We didn’t find out that there were other deadlines for them to meet around the same time.

Why? We failed to build enough research into our planning.

Why? The subject team group didn’t have enough time before rushing into action.

Secondly, it’s a good way of exploring the real purpose of any task at hand. This focuses on the future ratherthan the past, so it is essential to disallow ‘because’ responses and instead use ‘in order to’. For example:

Task at hand – ‘Make a decision whether to ask for work in this Friday or next Friday.’

Why? In order to ensure the greatest amount of work is handed in.

Why? In order to mark it in time and give students feedback before the end of term.

Why? To reducemarking over the holiday.

Why? Maximise the potential for a relaxing break and return to school refreshed at the start of term.

The technique in this second mode is sometimes known as an ‘objectives hierarchy’. The benefits of using it are:

  • It helps put things in context.
  • It unearths any conflicting visions in a team.
  • It pushes a team toward systematic working and rational analysis rather than bias and assumption.
  • As you go on it generates powerful influencing arguments that can be used to overcome prejudice.

This theory is the easy bit. It is very difficult to encourage people to use it regularly and effectively. It is a variation of the fishbone diagram with the main aim of delving into the root causes of a problem in a systematic way. It is briefly written up in a book called ‘The Creative Gap‘ by Simon Majaro.

The 5 Whys is a problem solving technique that helps you to tease out in more detail the potential causes of a problem. It is very simple to use. You state the problem as you see it and then ask the question Why?

This results (usually!) in a set of possible answers to which you then apply the question Why? This results in more possible answers to which you apply the question Why? and so on, until you have asked the question five times or you feel you have reduced the problem to its basic level. It sounds complicated but it isn’t and it provides you with a variety of causes which you can then investigate in more detail. It also helps to prevent diving into solution-generation too quickly.

This article has been adapted with permission from