An addendum to the 5 Why’s: The Empathy Corollary.

Do you know about the “Five Why’s”? I read a wikipedia article about this once, which is the extent of my knowledge on the topic. But it’s a simple idea and I’m pretty sure I’ve figured it out.

Like a two year old, if you keep asking “why”, you’ll get to the root cause of a problem and thus identify its solution. It’s remarkably effective.

Here’s the example from wikipedia:

  • The vehicle will not start. (the problem)
  1. Why? – The battery is dead. (first why)
  2. Why? – The alternator is not functioning. (second why)
  3. Why? – The alternator belt has broken. (third why)
  4. Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (fourth why)
  5. Why? – The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, a root cause)

OK sweet. If you stopped at the first why you’d replace the battery, which would NOT be a root cause solution, because there are other causal factors down the line. You’d still have a broken ride.

Instead, if you follow the reasoning all the way down, you’d learn the real cause of the issue is a negligent caretaker. Fixing the problem means educating the car owner on the importance of regular checkups. And then replacing the alternator belt.

When you’re in the weeds you will stop at the first why, which is often the wrong level of analysis. A helpful person (potentially a manager or boss) will help you drill down further and nail the issue. When I was doing more day-to-day coding, I just couldn’t get the energy to jump down a few levels to resolve the nasty bugs. Talking to someone with a little perspective always helped. The 5 Why’s is a just a formal, efficient way of accomplishing this.

But here’s my addendum. The Five Why’s (really, it should be the N Why’s – 5 is a just a rule of thumb) can be a pretty aggressive tactic that can, well, scare people. Your best case scenario is to surround yourself with people who can handle these interrogations (you can call them “funterrogations.”.) But in real life you have to interact with lots of different people, some of whom don’t like getting questioned.

So my advice: rock the 5 Why’s but mix it with empathy.

If you put yourself in your companion’s shoes, not only will you be able to follow their explanations more quickly, you’ll make them feel more comfortable thinking about the problem, and they themselves will get to the root cause more effectively.

I didn’t discover the empathy corollary at work. Rather, I started 5-whying friends about their personal problems.

As you can guess I got on some thin ice really fast.

But once I identified with the person, put myself in his position, and connected with the emotion expressed, the conversation became 100X more productive.

So 5 Why’s fans, next time, try it, but with empathy. Let me know how it goes.

Zingo statements.

Sifteo’s core values:

  • Nurture creativity.
  • Treat your customer like you would treat your friend.
  • We must think it’s cool.
  • Keep it brief.
  • Build it.
  • Have fun.

When Dave and I first started Sifteo, I winced a bit at the notion of “core values.” Mission statements, core values, banners posted on walls — it’s easy to dismiss these sorts of things as pointless oversimplifications of an organization’s goals, culture and rules. What I would call “nuanced” thinkers tend to scoff at these statements, zeroing in on all the ways in which these statements are not really accurate.

But the thing is, while these statements are definitely oversimplifications, they are insanely useful oversimplifications.  I’ve found that part of working with people and providing direction is the use of SIMPLE. CLEAR. statements. You’re not dumbing things down. You’re giving smart people a clear destination, and a clear set of rules – and letting them chart the course.

I don’t always succeed at boiling things down, but I work hard to do so. Indeed, I would argue that simplification is the goal of any human enterprise, and the goal of any valuable or charitable act. But that’s for another post.

So accept that you are oversimplifying. Accept that the statements are usually cheesy as hell. And get crazy and use them frequently. Examples:

  • A decision made with 75% certainty in a day beats one made with 95% certainty in a week. Every time. 
  • Stress is thought without action.
  • Think in shades of gray. Act in black and white.

You may see a lot of these statements on this blog. Liam Staskawicz, a fellow Sifteon, and I have dubbed these statements ZINGO STATEMENTS.


Because they have zing. and they make you go. ZINGO.

The purpose of this blog…

…is pretty simple. For the interested reader, I’ll talk mostly about design, the future, running a company and other (likely half-baked – it’s a blog, right?) observations, ruminations, and pontifications.

Here are some sample topics to look forward to:

  • “The Myth of the Uniform Distribution”
  • “When you want Bad Design”
  • “How to decide stuff: look no further than the linear equation”
  • “Sketching, communication, and convincing people your idea is good”
  • “Bullet list thinking”

Things like that. Stay tuned.