The Power of Five Whys


Not long ago I was with an executive team. They had been working towards an exciting company vision for a while, but were concerned about their lack of progress. Yes, it was early days and their vision will take years to achieve, but the team was worried. “It feels like we’re just walking in circles… always moving, but never towards our goals.” The solution wasn’t a knee jerk reaction like “don’t give up”, “work harder”, “advertise more”, or” lower prices”, but to simply ask why?

Here’s how we used the Five Whys to get to the nub of the problem.

First, we started with their vision and asked why it wasn’t working… that led us back to their strategy and tactics. Again, why weren’t they working?

The team struggled a bit, but didn’t give up. Asking why is like peeling an onion.

Continually asking it forced them to dig deep into fundamental issues like…

  • Fear of failure
  • Lack of urgency – it’s business as usual
  • Looking for the silver bullet – instead of focusing on the basics
  • Don’t have the right people

These issues felt more tangible, but we didn’t stop.

Next, we asked why these issues exist? To speed things up, participants each took an issue and did a Five Whys? on their own during the meeting – parallel processing. Within minutes, most came back with just a couple of root causes…

  • No accountability and tolerating unacceptable behavior
  • Insufficient communication from the top down
  • No formal development process or succession planning

Now we’re talking. These look more like roots. You can tell because they are things they can take action on. The final step was to develop a plan to address each one and then track their progress.

The Five Whys? gave them the power to get off the merry-go-round and start moving towards their vision. And if they’re not successful, they shouldn’t fret, but instead dig even deeper and do another round of Five Whys?

See how the Five Whys? can help you build team alignment in my post5 Ways to Build Team Alignment