Would you make an important decision — like whether to invest six figures in new enterprise software — based exclusively on a guess, or a wish, or a hunch?

Sure, it’s OK in business to make a guess or have a hunch, but it’s not OK to act on it without backing yourself up with solid fact. If you make a decision without knowing all the facts, you can be in for unpleasant surprises ranging from inconvenience to embarrassment to premature career death.

Unfortunately, leaders make decisions without knowing vital information every day. Why? Are they asking the wrong questions? Not always. Often, the problem is that they don’t ask enough questions.

How it works
Which is where the Five Whys come in.

The Fives Whys technique was developed by Toyota after the Second World War. Toyota found that if you repeat the question “why” five times when attempting to gain information about a situation, the nature of the problem as well as its solution will become clear, often in what can be described as an “aha” moment.

How does it work? Here’s a good example from the hiring world, an area where getting the right info is vital to avoiding the potentially high costs associated with hiring the wrong person.

Janet is interviewing Greg for an IT job:

JANET: I see you have 15 month gap in your resume. Tell me why.

GREG: I left Innovative Software to freelance as a consultant.

JANET: Why did you leave Innovative?

GREG: I didn’t agree with my boss.

JANET: Help me understand why not.

GREG: We didn’t agree about how to deal with customers.

JANET: Why didn’t you agree?

GREG: My boss said I was too technical with the clients.

JANET: Why did he say that?

GREG: I guess I wasn’t willing to “dumb it down” as much he wanted me to.

Suspicion confirmed
AHA! Janet spotted a suspicious gap in Greg’s resume; and by using the Five Whys to get to the bottom of the problem, she eventually discovered that Greg has an attitude problem and will probably be a poor communicator on the job.

By asking “why” five times, she avoided making what could be a disastrous – and expensive – hire.

To be sure, there’s nothing magical about the number Five. It’s really an average. Once you start using the technique, you may find you can get the information you need with three or four Whys — or you may have to go to six or seven if you’re dealing with a particularly opaque situation or a very close-mouthed person.

But try it. It works.

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