WHY? — A Powerful Question

How asking “why” can help you with your product’s success

From a very young age we express curiosity and become more and more connected to the world around us. We try to make sense of things by asking questions like, “Why is the sky blue?”, “Why are bananas curved?”, “Why can’t penguins fly?”.

So we could say that it is in our nature to explore and discover things by asking questions, and “why?” seems to be one of the most powerful ones.

We should continue to ask “why” in our adult lives because it can enable our path for self development in our personal and professional lives.

Purpose & Motivation

Using why in our work can help in defining purpose. In his bestselling book, Start with WHY, Simon Sinek explains in detail how asking “why?” should be the starting point for a business, because we are responding to our core impulses when we decide to buy a product. This explains why we are interested in the things we are interested in, why we buy certain things, and why some products appeal to us more than others. It also explains why we ignore rational explanations for great features of a product, because we buy why the company is selling to us and not just what they are selling.

Sinek also notes that it makes a huge difference when the message we receive starts with the motivation (why you are doing what you do), then the process (how you are doing it), and the product as a result (what you are doing). Sinek refers to this model as “The Golden Circle.”

Unfortunately, companies tend to deliver their message based on the what (the great products they produce, the features they have above other similar products) and how special they are (the discounts we will get for buying them, the unique process they used for producing the products). But they never get to the motivation that guides them to producing these products, which can result in short term success and failure to create loyalty from their customers.

Focusing on the why doesn’t mean the rest of the elements should be ignored. According to Sinek, all of them must be balanced and in the right order, with the clarity of why, discipline of how, and consistency of what. The whats are important because they provide the tangible proofs of the why and this can result in a greater confidence from your customer when choosing your products.

So if you have a product role or you are working on a product that you want to be successful, it is a great start to know the why. Understand the company’s vision in order to drive your product vision. This will assure you have something meaningful, as well as ensure that your product, the what, is also closer to success.

The 5 WHYs method

You now know how why can help you define your purpose and motivation, as well as understand the path ahead of you. Why is equally important for more specific situations, when you have a problem and you need to get to the right solution. A very well-known approach to get to the root of the problem and identify the right solution is the “5 WHYs method.”

You may think it’s simple to ask “why” five times, in order to get to the source of a problem in any given situation. While that may be true, you can increase your chances of success by following some steps and avoiding some common pitfalls.

Your starting point may be a large and vague problem, so some preliminary steps can help, such as narrowing down the large problem into the most likely causes and then further narrowing those down to one point of cause. This is where the problem occurs and here is where you start to ask “why” five times to get to the root cause.

According to Jeffrey Liker, author of Root Cause — Using The 5 WHYS, an important aspect in this process is to avoid pointing the finger at a “guilty” party or person, but rather to focus on what you can control and identify if there is something about the process that can be influenced immediately and can have an impact.

When you get to the root cause, the solution you come up with is generally referred to as a “countermeasure” or a hypothesis to test.(2) This is because this initial solution will not always hit the bull’s eye to solve our problem, so we need to keep in mind that it is only an assumption, or a hypothesis, until we validate the results and we can see it is actually working and producing the outcome we expected. We may discover that an adjustment is needed or we need to rerun the experiment on finding the root cause.

You should consider these common mistakes while using the “5 Whys,” because they can change the final outcome. Common mistakes include:

  1. Jumping from problem to solution without a clear understanding or analysis of the problem
  2. Blaming people involved in the process instead of investigating the process and what are the loopholes that allow those errors to happen
  3. Assuming you know the answers or solutions prior to exploration
5 WHYs method in practice

Here is a classic example from Joel A. Gross of the “5 WHYs” at work:

“Problem: One of the monuments in Washington D.C. is deteriorating.

Why #1 — Why is the monument deteriorating?

Because harsh chemicals are frequently used to clean the monument.

Why #2 — Why are harsh chemicals needed?

Answer: To clean off the large number of bird droppings on the monument

Why #3 — Why are there a large number of bird droppings on the monument?

Answer: Because the large population of spiders in and around the monument are a food source to the local birds

Why #4 — Why is there a large population of spiders in and around the monument?

Answer: Because vast swarms of insects, on which the spiders feed, are drawn to the monument at dusk.

Why #5 — Why are swarms of insects drawn to the monument at dusk?

Because the lighting of the monument in the evening attracts the local insects.

Solution: Change how the monument is illuminated in the evening to prevent attraction of swarming insects.”3

The 5 WHYs is a great way to find new, creative solutions for a problem. But be sure to pay attention to the common mistakes, otherwise you will get a different result, which may cause you to believe that the method is not working. Even if the 5 WHYs method looks fast, efficient, and easy to understand, it still requires some careful thinking.

To sum it up

If you’ve reached this point, you now know that:

  • Why can help you in your self development, so never stop being curious.
  • Why can help you set your motivations and goals, so keep searching why you do the things you do.
  • Why will help you solve problems in your day-to-day work with the “5 WHYs” method.

In your efforts toward product success, why becomes a valuable ally. This one simple question can point you toward the right product or, if you already know the right product, it can help you get there faster. So be sure to ask “why?” as often as possible, and you’ll see limitless possibilities and new paths to lead you to your product success.

Resources & further reading

  1. Simon Sinek (2009), Start with WHY
  2. Jeffrey Liker (2017), Root Cause — Using the 5 Whys: Developing Leadership Skills, Part 12
  3. Joel A. Gross, “5 Whys Folklore: The Truth Behind a Monumental Mystery”