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The five “Whys” a manager should ask

This is a trick headline.  There can be three “whys” or twenty, depending upon the issue and the responses.  To make the point, the word “why” has to be one of the more powerful words in a manager’s vocabulary.  Asking the question forces the other person to think beyond the usual “what” that generated a response to “why.”

It sure is a way to get to the bottom of an issue.  “I just reduced the number of ad words we’re paying for.”  “Why?” “They weren’t paying off in enough revenue.” “Why?” “Well, all we could measure is dollars of revenue against cost for clicks.” “Why?” “Well, we have no
question-markway to know which other ad words might have done a better job of conversion into revenue.” “Why?” “We have no-one on staff with enough knowledge of marketing to distinguish words from phrases, or with experience to know how to capture clicks into conversions.” “Why?”  “We’ve never thought this to be an important part of our marketing effort.” “Why?” “We just don’t know what we don’t know.  Will you stop asking ‘why’?”

[Email readers, continue here…]  How revealing! There is no better way to get to the bottom of an issue than this.  In the case above, lack of performance was caused by lack of knowledge, and inability to find resources to help.  A good manager-questioner might conclude that a small expenditure with a consultant might pay off in great rewards, before abandoning the use of ad words entirely as a result of the comment from the subordinate.

Practice your listening skills with one or more attempts at the five “why’s” and see if you find insights into answers to problems that might not have been obvious without your queries.

  • Asking pertinent ” Why ” questions fast tracks learning and from that understanding of what needs to be done to move forward. Part of realizing potential and effecting change – if there is the will and ability to do so !

    With asking good questions it’s interesting observing the outcomes of those answering them – hopefully enlightenment that results in better decision making, or resentment if an awkward situation, or nothing if they don’t know what they don’t know ! Getting a handle on this is important since reward and risk directly correlate to the response above.

  • Thanks for another actionable pearl of wisdom, Dave. And perhaps the best result of using questions that way is that it empowers employees to do it themselves next time. If too many “why?” questions start to provoke a defensive answers, try “what do you think caused that?”

    Another useful technique can be a series of, “so what?” or (less aggressive sounding) “resulting in . . . ?” questions which produce information on the cost of the problem (or the value of the solutions uncovered with your series of “why?” questions).

  • Excellent article Dave. This one really got me thinking about digging deeper before making decisions. This article should be read by every manager.

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