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.

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