5 Whys To Wisdom

Way back in a 1996 Harvard Business Review article authors Jim Collins and Jerry Porras introduced me to the concept of “5 Whys.”[i] The idea is simple: Whenever you’re faced with a challenging situation, ask the question why five times to reveal the true purpose behind an action. I’ve often employed the technique when assisting clients to develop their mission statement, and later key results.

Take a market research company for example. When developing a mission statement they might start with something prosaic like, “Provide the best market research data.” Yawn. After a few rounds of “Why do you do that?,” however, we can reveal their true purpose (mission), which is to “Contribute to customers’ success by helping them understand their markets.” This latter statement is more inspirational, and will stand the test of time, while potentially prompting them to alter their strategy along the way.

One Why Too Many?

The 5 Whys method is unquestionably effective, but how many whys is too many? I’ve been using the method for many years and have noticed a troubling pattern. After a few rounds, three in most cases, the successive answers to the why question become very high-level and similar, regardless of the action we have under the microscope.

Let’s say, for example, we’re tasked with creating key results for the following two objectives: “Create long-term bonds with customers,” and “Enhance communication throughout the company.” To find the true purpose of each objective and thereby identify a meaningful key result we begin asking “why?” Why do you want to create long-term bonds with customers? Why do you want to enhance communication throughout the company?” I guarantee that if you ask why five times, by the time you get to round 4, and definitely 5, the answer will be “To increase sales…or profitability…or shareholder value.” Let’s try it…

6 Whys To World Peace

Why #1:

Q: Why do you want to enhance employee communication throughout the company?

A: So that employees will be more informed.

Why #2

Q: Why do you want employees to be more informed?

A: Because they’ll understand the strategy.

Why #3

Q: Why do you want them to understand the strategy?

A: So that they can make decisions aligned with strategy?

Why #4

Q: Why do you want them to make decisions aligned with strategy?

A: Because it will accelerate execution.

Why #5

Q: Why do you want to accelerate execution?

A: Because we’ll grow revenue, profitability, and shareholder value.

BINGO! If we had a round six it might result in: “Do our part to foster world peace.”

Know When to Say ‘When’ on the ‘Whys’

In this case there was no point in advancing after the third round, as “Making decisions aligned with strategy” would represent a significant benefit of enhancing employee communication. The problem is measuring better decision-making. So, in fact, they may have been better off stopping after round two, and measuring employee knowledge of strategy. That can be accomplished with easy to administer pulse surveys, and updated over time to show whether progress has been made.

As with most concepts and techniques, there is a point of diminishing returns with the 5 Whys exercise. Our job as OKRs Coaches is to be astute enough to know when we’ve peeled back the layers of the onion enough to illuminate a powerful key result, without going overboard with a “motherhood and apple pie” statement, that provides little or no real value. We rely heavily on the person or team being coached to help us calibrate correctly here. The in-depth knowledge they possess of their business should signal when we’ve plumbed to the right depth and revealed an answer that can be molded into an actionable key result; something you can in fact measure and use to create business value.

Paul Niven is a Global OKR Coach and author of Objectives & Key Results, Driving Focus, Alignment and Engagement with OKRs.

[i] James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, “Building Your Company’s Vision,” Harvard Business Review, September-October, 1996.