Tuesday, October 10, 2017

First ask “why” … then do it 5 times!

Its interesting how many times I see senior executives (and maybe a few consultants like yours truly) feel like they need to have the answers … all of the answers … and they always have to be right.  As crazy as that sounds, think about your own situations.  Consider how many times you have been in front of a senior exec, a board member, or a highly paid consultant and you DIDN’T expect them to have all the answers.  No leadership team or single executive, nor a board member or board, nor a consulting practice or a single consultant can or ever will have all the right answers.  It’s unrealistic and frankly not appropriate.  What is key is that we need to expect and require those same senior executives, board members, and consultants to ASK the right questions all the time and that process starts, and always starts by asking “why?”

While it may seem simple enough, we often start with the two “wrong” questions if we even start with questions versus misplaced proclamations.  Typically, we start with “who” … (“who’s in charge?”, “who’s responsible for these results,?” “who is working with whom to get this mess fixed?”, and the list goes on.) If we don’t start with the “who” questions, we often go straight to the “how much” set of questions …( “how much are we behind plan,?” how much did this budget variance cost?,” etc.)    I want us to consider that we all need to first start by asking “why”, trying to understand the core issue at hand before we do anything else.  “Why has this situation happened?” or “why is this problem continuing to recur?” or why do you feel we aren’t making progress against our goals?” are all three good places to start.  Using “why” questions is a good way for everyone, senior execs, board members and consultants in particular, to frame the issue at hand and to use the discipline of “questions” to work to gain common alignment on the problem that is trying to be solved.  A HUGE step forward in all strategic work is to define the problem you are trying to solve and to have a common understanding of the problem at hand.

First asking “why” is key and in my experience it is pretty rare especially at senior levels.  While I clearly think it's a “required” first step, it is rarely “sufficient” to do the job at hand … thus my encouragement to then “ask why” 5 times!  While there is no magic specifically in the number 5, there has been a lot of work done in this approach, focusing on the best approach to get at the “root cause” of any issue and the “ask why 5 times” is a fundamental element of that approach.  Pioneered by Toyota in the 1950’s, this discipline/technique has been applied broadly across industries, companies and functions and is one of those fundamental business skills worth NEVER forgetting.  I learned this approach in early training classes at
The Coca-Cola Company in the early 90’s and I still refer back to them today.  The image above is a simple tool that helps the process and I have filled quite a number of flip-charts over the years with these “fishbone diagrams.”  To understand more of the approach, it’s background, and application, take a look at the following link,  https://open.buffer.com/5-whys-process/

Regardless of the intensity of the moment or the risks at stake, work hard to try to start with a question and hopefully that question begins with “why.”  If you can frame the situation with a “why” question, then gather the team to do some “digging” and work your way to keep going, “ask why 5 times” to get underneath the veneer of the problem at hand and have a deeper understanding and deeper alignment on the root cause of the problem that needs fixing!

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