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Donn King


Beyond 5 Whys: Your 3-year-old Why

I'm not arguing with @xjdeng on his challenge. In fact, I would agree with the basic premise behind the technique, which is to keep digging to get to a root cause. I'm not applying it to a given challenge, though, because I personally have found that you can go five deep and still not surface the "real" issue. Below is the heart of a methodology that harnesses something anyone who has raised a child knows. A three-year-old will not stop asking why until they reach a level that satisfies them, and there are clues to finding a satisfying level in your digging up of "whys." I am working on a book about this called Your Three-Year-Old Why. (If you would like updates, use this form.)

Pretty much everyone in business has heard Simon Sinek's idea that you should "start with why" rather than "what we do" or "how we do it" or "how much is it going to cost." The 5 Whys is a solid technique that can help you discover your core "why." Turbo charge it with an understanding of these guidelines.


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

    1. Look for the “so that”

    Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side, of course. But nobody ever asks why the chicken wanted to get to the other side. Keep asking. What’s the result you’re seeking? People don’t buy drills, they buy holes. Not only that, but they don’t buy holes, they buy hanging Grandma’s picture.

    2. Look for the emotion

    Without emotion there is no motion. They don't want just to hang Grandma's picture. They want to hang Grandma's picture because she died last year and they miss her. An actual three-year-old may finally be satisfied when they know the motivation (another way of saying what moves you). They won't call it that, but when they finally hear some emotion, they may understand why you care.

    Simple fact: unless I am moved, I do not move.

    3. Look for the lightbulb

    The aha moment. It is what humor and education have in common, when you put two ideas together that initially you may not have thought of together. It's a certain sort of emotion, really. A bit of excitement of, "Oh! I never thought of it that way before!"

    4. Look for the story

    Early answers to “why” are often short. The eventual story tends to go deep. How did stories start when you were three? “Once upon a time.” Hint: they still do. Stories are specific, concrete, and focused on "one time this happened." They're not just a timeline, i.e., this happened, then this happened, etc. Stories involve a focal character facing a challenge or conflict and changing in the process.

    Why do you want a drill? To make a hole. Why? So I can hang Grandma's picture. Why? She died last year, and I miss her. Why do you miss her? "Well, she always looked on the bright side. I remember one time at the family Christmas gathering...."

    Bingo. There's a "why" that resonates.

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