The whys of why not why

During my presentation about Solution Focused work in Agile at XPDays Benelux I stated that asking “why” in coaching can be dangerous and should be avoided.

Why not why?

In a community where the Five Whys is actually one of the premier methods, I knew I was opening up for a lot of discussions. Exactly this happened and the discussions were good ones.

The purpose of this post is to add some more information on this controversial topic.

1. Agile coaching is also coaching

As I stated in a previous blog entry, agile coaching is not just coaching. It’s more: an agile coach is also a trainer, a mentor, a moderator, a facilitator and whatever role is actually needed to help a company in becoming agile. In fact, an agile coach shows all his/her agility in doing this continuous role shift, making sure the customer gets the best out of the work of the coach in each situation.

As such, there are situations that are not coaching-related where the question why has a place. In coaching, however, and especially when using a solution focused approach, the question “why” need to be used carefully (see more below and here)

2. Solution Focused is an approach to coaching

Here’s the real deal: what do you really want to find out when asking questions? There are several objectives in coaching (intended as the art of driving a customer through a process without providing content) and the approach used for each of those is different. For example, when trying to elicit values, the typical procedure involves exactly asking “why”: “Why do you want to change the Definition of Done?”“Because we need to improve the quality of our deliverables” (Quality in our deliverables is a value).

Solution Focused instead is about envisioning solutions instead of searching in the past, and here’s where asking “why” can be dangerous: the question “why” implies a rationalisation process that invariably looks in the past. This is clearly evident in a question like “why did you do X?”.

In a question like “why do you want to achieve X?” – apparently solution focused – the issue is more subtle: the answer to such a question is usually “because I want to avoid Y/improve compared to Y/…”: defining the future in terms of differences from the past is a limiting view on the available options compared to first envisioning a future and then defining what’s different compared to the past.

3. Blamed by whys

The question why implies also a request for justification. We ask misbehaving kids why did they do that, we ask people we love why did they do something that hurts us. No wonder the question why is loaded with an emotional intensity not present in the other types of questions.

4. One more reason why

“Why can’t you just talk to your colleague?”
This is a very typical question in almost all the workplaces I saw. The reasons are usually all but rational and it doesn’t really matter whether they are real or not. The fact is, as soon as we are asking why we are eliciting these reasons and bringing them into consciousness: “Because last year during project X he made Y” is a typical answer. How does this answer help exactly in solving the problem? Well, it doesn’t! How does this answer help in off-loading emotially the situation? It doesn’t either, actually it strengthens all the bad feelings related to the situation!

5. Why do we need why

There are places for asking why: when eliciting values, as shown before, but also when searching for the deeper meaning of something that happened in the past.

Why searches in the past, and if this is what we want we could definitely use it.

In solution focused work though, it is not what we want as we focus on the future.

6. Why there is (almost) no need for it

Anyway, the question why is usually a simple and simplistic way to ask about something. In fact, apart for the usages I stated above, it can easily be replaced by other questions that give us a richness of details that why cannot, provided we use them skillfully to get the information we need.

Let’s take the example above: “Why can’t you just talk to your colleague?”

why not ask why 2

Alternative questions would be for example:

  • “What do you gain not talking to your colleague?” – elicits the deeper win for an action
  • “How exactly will not talking to your colleague help you achieve your goals” – elicits a possible strategy behind a behaviour
  • “When do you expect your behaviour to change?” – assumes the situation can change and finds out what are the conditions for the change

And so on: there are several alternatives to the question why that allow a more targeted retrieval of the information we want. So how could we ask “why” in a better way?

7. Creative whys

Serge Beaumont has developed a great technique he uses when coaching Product Owners for linking user stories to business value. In this process asking “why” is in fact, the central technique. Contradicting what I wrote above? Actually not: when doing so, he is actually eliciting reasons why a story should be done at all. If, by asking why, the PO reaches one of the stated business values then great, if not, either the business values need to be extended with the newly found reason or the story should simply be ditched from the backlog.

By asking why he is effectively forcing the PO to keep the stories focused to the stated value for the product: a very creative way to force convergence to the product goals!

8. Emotionally why

As children we used to ask why when discovering what was around us and we are still doing it in this discovery process that is our life. As children we needed a simple question to help us making sense of the world, because we didn’t know what to search for in the first place. As adults we have also other tools to use, so what advantages do we have in limiting ourselves to using just “why”?

6 thoughts on “The whys of why not why”

  1. This is very powerful and useful information for coaches. The Five Whys technique has become almost a knee-jerk approach in the community. Like any tool, it is useful when it is right for the job at hand.
    We are engaged by different clients for different reasons. In some cases, the client wants us to help teams become more effective generally. In others, the client wants us to help a team deliver a project that is not moving along well.
    In the former case, an approach that draws out values and principles to foment discussions about team norms and shared goals seems appropriate. In the latter case, an approach that helps the team focus on the project’s objectives seems appropriate.
    As coaches, we should tailor our approach to each situation so that we provide the kind of help each client wants and needs.

  2. Like the nuance, not the title. The examples above are generally not how to use the 5 whys. The goal of the 5 whys is not to elicit specific information on your topic. Embellishing the question why actually limits the thinking on the part of those being coached. When someone has a problem that sounds like a symptom not a root cause, asking why is forcing them to think more deeply about it. This is when listening is MORE important than directing. The responses say much about how the person thinks about the problem.
    The reason to ask why is not to find solutions or values. The reason to ask why is to find the root cause. Once the root cause has been found then solutions should be considered. The problem with the above approach is it assumes you know the root cause and now you need to direct people to that solution. This is concerning to me because the individual you are coaching may not agree with your analysis of the situation, therefore your solutions may not be considered valid.
    Agile coaches are not the only ones using why. The 5 whys is from the Toyota productions system along with Ishikawa diagrams and other techniques. Psychologists also use the 5 whys with their patients to help them identify root causes.
    Getting good at the 5 whys takes practice. It is not a panacea. Once the root cause has been identified and agreed on then potential solutions can be considered. There are other ways to identify the root cause too. For example Gerry Weinberg uses similar ideas in identifying survival rules. In this technique he is very careful to identify and gain agreement that the actual rule has been clearly identified. Only after this point does he start suggesting modifications to the rule and testing these with the person.
    If you know the root cause, then at least you need to get agreement from the people being coached on that root cause. The 5 whys way is to help them come to the conclusion themselves. If they don’t then suggesting the root cause and then showing your analysis presents your ideas for their inspection. This presentation can generate a range of responses, from very positive to complete denial/refuting your analysis. “Why can’t you just talk to your colleague?” suggests a root cause and a solution. I would back that up to the original issue, and then ask why to uncover the real issue, as talking to your colleague may or may not be the root cause of the problem.

  3. Robin,
    Thanks for your contribution: when I posted this one I knew I was opening a can of worms! 🙂
    The title of the post was intended to be catchy and, of course, it does not summarise the whole story on such a complex subject where the nuances are important. The title comes from a slide I presented at XPDays Benelux as part of my solution-focused approach where I said asking why *could* be dangerous in solution focused work and should be used sparingly. As the slide was called “why not why” [in that context], the post got called accordingly.
    As per the content:
    1. I read in your comment the belief that you need to identify the root cause of a problem before designing a solution. This is exactly what solution-focused negates and, in doing this, it questions the effectiveness of the freudian psychanalysis: it is not necessary to find the root cause of the problem – or, in general, to analyse the problem – to find a solution. This affirmation might have its limits when discussing purely technical problems, but the more the issue is about interaction among people, the more it is valid. Solution-focused has changed the way therapists interact with patients and shortened the therapy time. The same in coaching: in the past I got stuck several times in problem talk and I systematically lost the client’s block when discussion solutions and avoiing asking why. Especially when discussing issues in a team, they might not agree on the root cause as they have different evaluations on the problem (due to their different values, in fact), but they typically can design a common solution without disagreeing. Been there, seen that several times!
    2. It’s not that I never ask why: just yesterday I was co-moderating a workshop where we discussed personal values: there the question “why” – maybe in different forms like “for the sake of what?” and “what do you care about?” was, in fact, the central point of the day. However, when finding alternatives to live one’s personal values, I restrained for asking why and just focused on the what/how/ when/…, as it was about finding options and solution rather than “going to the root” of one’s personal values.
    3. I agree with you the 5-why is much more than just asking why, the examples in the post were more a critic of the general principle of asking why rather than using more effective questions. As you mention it’s not a panacea (like solution-focused is not either, else our job would be way to easy!). For me it’s a tool that is sensible and valuable when investigating technical problems, but shows quickly its limitations when talking about soft issues.
    4. I agree with you on that listening is more important than directing and, in general, of the coach introducing his/her own content. As a coach I would never do that. I would ask a questions like “what are the disadvantages of not talking to your colleague?” only after the client states “I would never talk to him”, i.e. picking up on his content and asking clarification question on it. I would anyway avoid asking why for the reasons I mention in the post. The very core of solution-focused is, in fact, about asking the client for a solution, not providing one: we totally agree on this!
    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts again.

  4. While there are limitations with the 5 whys, I take issue with your statement
    “it is not necessary to find the root cause of the problem – or, in general, to analyse the problem – to find a solution. This affirmation might have its limits when discussing purely technical problems, but the more the issue is about interaction among people, the more it is valid.”
    This is pretty much opposite to my understanding of science and technical problem solving. If you don’t analyze the problem then you are doing what? Randomly guessing at solutions? Or has there been some sort of analysis that we are not aware of? If we don’t know the problem, then we need to test our way to find solutions, which is in fact uncovering the real nature of the problem, much like reverse engineering.
    In the case of people and behavior, we have the emotional, irrational, motivation and self interest factors that may complicate root cause analysis. So if root cause analysis means getting down to core personal values and challenging/changing them, we may not want to do this in some cases. There may be much easier ways to get behavior change. Given that our makeup is prone to repeating patterns, learning and practicing a new pattern can change underlying structures. This is why playing games and running simulations play an important part in my training. People get to feel what the new pattern is like before trying to understand it intellectually and emotionally. The issue is still getting agreement on the behavior change.
    Interesting article, thanks for the insights. I would suggest future pieces consider positioning these ideas not as a replacement for the 5 whys (they are not IMO) but as an addition to the 5 whys suited for personal coaching or times when the root cause is too difficult to address directly.
    Robin Dymond.

  5. Robin,
    Solution focused is not a replacement for the 5 whys. It’s another tool in the toolbox that I find very useful and productive in quite a lot of scenarios where I was using problem analysis tools before.
    The concept that it is not necessary to find the root cause of the problem to look for a solution is actually not mine but rather coming from the work of Steve de Shazer, Insoo Kim Berg and others (for more info: It has been synthesized by Ludwig Wittgenstein with “all of the facts belong to the problem, not to the solution”. For whatever irrational this might appear at first sight, it is not. Here’s an example:
    Let’s suppose person A and person B have a long history of arguing and discussing about a topic. Looking into the history of that problem and asking why did A do/say something to B, and why did B do/say something to A and so on until the root cause is found is
    a. taking out all the bad feelings related to A’s and B’s past diatribes
    b. trying to assign blame – who started all this – and
    c. possibly there might not be a root cause at all as it all started with a misunderstanding in the beginning that nobody remembers anymore.
    What about instead envisioning a solution where A and B can cooperate together? How does this scenario look like? What are they doing differently? What opportunities does this open? We have not analysed the root cause, but it is still possible to design a solution. If the coach does the work properly, i.e. asking the proper questions – and not adding content, not even embedded in the questions! – the designed solution is actually viable and stable (there are some techniques to ensure that!).
    There is, in fact, an indirect problem analysis being done in this process: the client knows inside him how the solution state should be different from the problem state, and he uses this information in the work, although not consciously.
    When applying to more technical aspects, this method shows its limits, but can still be useful. For example, instead of identifying why a team did not deliver a product with the proper quality it would be possible to ask the team what they should do differently to have a good quality delivery in the next sprint. No blame needs to be assigned – this is especially important if there is actually a human cause for the problem – and in the solution the root cause will usually be addressed anyway.
    You mention playing games and running simulation as a way to make people experience new patterns before they understand it intellectually and emotionally: interestingly solution focused is, in fact, implementing a similar aspect. By thinking solution, the client experiences what it is like to be problem-free (the “new pattern”) and he is much freer in the choices he can make.

  6. Robin wrote:
    “The reason to ask why is not to find solutions or values. The reason to ask why is to find the root cause. Once the root cause has been found then solutions should be considered.”
    Well, the point is, that asking “why” to find root causes is very appropriate in situations in which the relationship between cause and effect is obvious to all or in which the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or some other form of investigation and/or the application of expert knowledge. (1)
    BUT: Asking “why” is not useful in “complex” situations, when the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance, the approach is to Probe – Sense – Respond and we can sense emergent practice.
    So: Dealing with “technical” stuff or with simple or complicated workflows with no “human interactional impacts” the “5 Why” are useful. But dealing with problems in social systems like human interactions in teams looking for causes are not helpful, and therefore the “5 Why” are misleading.
    (1) Cynefin framework by Dave Snowden

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