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Why why why why why?

2024-06-15 — Michael Haupt

The “Five Whys” technique for problem solving has a problem. Why? Because “why” is not the right question. Why? Because it has too little nuance. Why? Because there are multiple ways to ask “why” that yield more precise, more insightful responses. Why? Let’s see …

Consider the German translation of “why”. Or rather, the multiple possible translations: warum, weshalb, wozu, weswegen, wieso, wofür - all of these can be translated as “why”, and most have more nuance. The first, “warum”, is a literal translation of “why”, and has equally little nuance. We’ll leave it aside.

“Weswegen” and “wieso” are rather synonymous. One nuanced translation would be “for what reason”. You may shrug and say “but that’s what I mean when I ask ‘why’, so what?” - stay tuned.

You can translate these two in other nuanced ways as well, adding “for what cause” and “why this way” (note the recursion here). Note the subtle but important difference between “reason” and “cause”: the reason is more like a deep underlying principle, while the cause is more immediate, as in “cause and effect”.

Finally, “wozu”, “weshalb”, “wofür” all can be translated as “to what end”, pointing to a purpose.

I’m using the German language as a vehicle here to point to the possibilities. Other languages may have similar nuances. What counts is that there’s more to “why” than meets the eye - there are a reason, cause, and end to something. Each of these can be important when asking “why”: there is more contingency in what may be behind a decision or circumstance.

The Five Whys approach thus suffers from the same lack of nuance as any approach that suggests to Start With Why (sorry, Simon Sinek). The fix is easy: instead of asking “why”, ask for the reason, cause, and end of what’s observed at each of the stages. It will likely make for richer discussions and deeper insights.

Tags: work