As a guide to explaining the causes of problems at work, we are sometimes given this advice: ask the question “Why?” five times. But “Why?” is a vague question and might not always deepen our thinking. It is akin to advising a confused student to ask “Huh?” or “What do you mean?” five times in order to clarify the meaning of a new concept. It is imprecise and inefficient. Here are five ways of articulating more precise questions to understand what caused something to happen.
Sequence of Events
When we ask “Why?” sometimes what we are looking for is a story that describes a sequence of events. We are trying to get clarity on what happened by creating a map that highlights certain moments. Questions about sequences may sound like this:
- What was the sequence of events leading up to the decision to end this project?
- What important events led us to conclude that this marketing campaign should continue?
- Can we identify a sequence of events that would explain this unexpected success?
In a trigger/conditions model of thinking about causes, we imagine a past in which a set of conditions came into place that provided a perfect setting for a single event to take on a great deal of power. These background conditions may not be notable until a trigger event exerts its impact. Trigger events are often surprising, and sometimes would have been unremarkable without the right set of background conditions in place to bolster their power.
When we find ourselves wondering: “What happened?” after a surprising event, we can ask precisely about both the trigger event and the conditions behind it:
- Did something trigger this massive schedule change?
- What are the background conditions that made us vulnerable to falling behind when this happened?
Drivers and Inhibitors
When we refer to drivers and inhibitors in causal questions, we are using a push/pull model to guide our thinking. In almost any situation, some factors are pushing something to happen and some factors are impeding the same thing from happening. People familiar with models in physics will find this kind of reasoning about the social world and business world helpful, even if it is more difficult to quantify. If we are analyzing what happened in the past and we imagine forces working in opposition, our questions might sound like:
- What are some of the factors driving this change?
- What factors are inhibiting the change from occurring?
- What are the primary factors driving sales of this product among young buyers?
- What are the primary factors inhibiting sales of this product among young buyers?
As we study the situation we might discover the inhibiting factors that are powerful obstacles to growth. This could lead us to decide to work on removing inhibitors rather than trying to promote drivers. In this way, causal reasoning that is careful about drivers and inhibitors can lead to creative solutions to problems and prompt innovative ideas about the future.
Sometimes you’ll hear people ask “What is the root cause?” as if root causes are easy to spot. They are actually difficult to identify because, by definition, they are structural conditions that, when brought under control, will eliminate a problem and prevent its recurrence. It is not always possible to identify a root cause for a problem; sometimes all we find are contributing causes. When we become more precise in our thinking about causes, it is helpful to keep in mind that sometimes we would be well-served to spend the time and energy necessary to identify root causes. Root cause fixes can be expensive or difficult to implement, but they tend to make major changes in systems that can be helpful, even revolutionary. You might try asking:
- Can we identify a root cause for this problem – a structural condition that, if changed, will eliminate the problem entirely?
Sometimes when we ask “Why?” what we really want to know is the mechanism by which something operates. The problem, of course, is that “Why?” isn’t precise enough to generate an answer about mechanisms. We might instead get a story about sequences of events or a driver/inhibitor analysis! When we want to ultimately understand how something works as a way of understanding its internal operations and how it causes things to happen, our questions will initially sound like this:
- What are the main parts of our supply chain and where are they located?
- How do the main parts of our supply chain interact with one another?
- Where are the most problematic handoffs within the supply chain?
- As currently structured, where do the bottlenecks form in our supply chain?
Learning from Experience
Because it is so easy to just ask “Why?” we can get trapped into shallow thinking about the causes of a problem. Precise causal questions take our thinking deeper because they provide us with distinct ways of understanding how the world works and why events occurred as they did. Each of these forms of causal logic offers us new ways to understand the past and what is happening around us. When we are looking for lessons—trying to understand why something succeeded or failed in our work, for example—we are well-served to ask questions from multiple causal logics in order to enrich and deepen our understanding and learn more from our best teacher: experience!
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