problem solving with five whys

2020-07-11

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~2 min read

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306 words

Shortly after my discovery of the feelings wheel, I noticed a change in my approach to problem solving. Whenever I felt lost and unsure about how to approach a problem, I started trying to get one level deeper to understand it.

This could be for emotions… Instead of happy, it was powerful, then it wasn’t powerful, it was valued. But it also worked for problems at work… Instead of “solve the problem”, it was solve the ingestion problem. Instead of solve the ingestion, it was parse the CSV.

Regardless of the problem, it was always the same process. Take a problem. Break it down. Break it down again. And suddenly the path forward was much clearer. As I was describing the process to a friend, it dawned on me that it was really a variant of the the famous problem solving technique, the five whys (albeit abridged to only two steps).

The five whys, which is the process of interrogating a problem in search of a “root” cause by asking why five times, is surprisingly helpful — not necessarily in finding the root cause of a problem, there’s some debate about whether it achieves that goal, but certainly in identifying a path forward.

When you ask why, or break a problem down into smaller parts, each iteration leads to a deeper understanding of the problem — which, when it’s time to plan an approach, is surprisingly helpful - just like it was surprising how helpful the feelings wheel was in identifying appropriate responses based on a deeper understanding of emotions.

The monster under the bed is scary because you can’t see it.

With the five whys (or the feeling wheel, or the digging deeper), that what we’re doing: lifting the sheets to see the monster and when we do it’s not so scary after all!


Hi there and thanks for reading! My name's Stephen. I live in Chicago with my wife, Kate, and dog, Finn. Want more? See about and get in touch!