When to Shift from "Why?" to "How?"

A recent problem solving team activity made me aware of the importance of knowing when to shift the conversation from “why?” to “how?” To be honest it is sometimes hard to know where to draw the line in the 5 why analysis, especially when the root cause approaches the murky territory of human behavior and motivation. When we know the “who?” it’s tempting to skip the “why?” and just introduce the “where” as in the place those people can go to be less of a nuisance to the team. But that is only the very last resort.

That’s how most of us respond to first hearing of a problem. We ask the “what” questions to understand the situation well enough to start either taking care of the problem or getting out of its way. In fact the initial steps of grappling with big, vague problems are key to chances of success in problem solving. These first steps are clarifying the problem, breaking down the problem to its specific sub-problems, and describing the situation in terms of a gap between target and actual. Once we are clear on what is and what should be, the problem statement becomes clearer. When we have a well-crafted problem statement we can begin root cause analysis by asking “why?”

When we approach problem solving by asking “why?” and not “who?” we do so with the best of intentions: to avoid assigning blame on the very people who we need to engage in problem solving. Blame stokes the flames of a problem and rarely puts them out. A good understanding of the systemic, process-oriented root causes comes from the relentless asking of the “why?” questions. The so-called 5 why process is designed to shift the focus away from placing blame on people and towards looking for process and system root causes. And yet sometimes we end up staring at root cause that is a “who”. That’s when it might be time to shift from “why?” to “how?” even if at the cost of blurring the focus on Mr. Rootcause.

Let’s step in the shoes of a project team leader who is struggling to stay on-time withe the project’s objectives. Let’s further say that the 5 why process arrives at “we lack cooperation from individuals in a support department X.” Further questioning of “why?” will only lead to speculation as to the reasons why these individuals are not supporting or cooperating. The project team leader could “go see” by approaching these individuals directly to listen to them and learn why they are unwilling or unable to support. Often this is the best approach, if distance is not too great of a hindrance. When it’s not possible to go see these people, neither telephone nor e-mail are always adequate substitutes when it comes to the information gathering interview as part of the problem solving process. It can take a lot of skill in communication, non-threatening body language and a willingness to be patient enough to develop understand, especially if there is built-up frustration.

Chasing the root cause by asking why can be like the proverbial pursuit of the wild goose. This might be a good time to put down the “why?” and break out the ‘how?”

Why “How”?
After a certain point asking why can be painful because it requires digging up things that people may rather leave buried. Asking how can be much more engaging and positive because it allows people to shift their thinking towards the solution and away from the problem. This allows the problem solving team to work on something constructive together. The skilled facilitator will spot these potential challenges early on, prepare a few smaller problems that will allow the team to coalesce around and build trust in confidence by finding a common “how”. When asking how, in order to avoid solution-jumping behavior it is very important to have agreed on a clear “what” by crafting a good problem statement and to stay with the why (at least five times) question long enough to be in the neighborhood of the root cause.

“Why are you behaving this way?” is almost never a simple question to answer. It leads back to system problems that can be perceived as making excuses, shifting responsibility and accountability away from the individual. The truth behind the “why” can lead back to “who we are” which few of us have a good grasp of in any case. The root causes of human behavior are typically not replaced through 90-day action plans, nor are most of us trained to help people change in this way. As the saying goes, “It is easier to act your way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” This is how learning by doing can support behavior change from inside out. The “how” that leads to a small, concrete action today and even a partial solution is better than exposing the full human truth of the “why”.