Life Design

The 5 Whys Activity for Life Design

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The 5 Whys activity is a classic design thinking activity. This post gives you a background of the 5 Whys activity and examples of how it can be applied to life design.

What is the 5 Whys Activity?

The 5 Whys activity is an interative root cause analysis technique in which one asks ‘Why?‘ 5 times to get at the root cause of a problem.

It was developed by Sakichi Toyoda, Taichi Ohno, and Isao Kato, for Toyota Industries Co. The technique has garnered widespread use and has seen applications in product design, lean management, therapy, etc.

While many people and fields have applied the 5 Whys technique, it has been met with its share of criticism (e.g., Why 5 whys as opposed to another number?, single ‘Why’ reason and answer, lack of support in framing ‘Why?, etc.?). These critiques are important to consider when framing the activity.

The 5 Whys Activity for Life Design

The 5 Whys activity can be adapted for the life design process. Here are two examples:

Example #1: 5 Whys for Personal Reflection

5 Whys can be used as a personal reflection activity. One critique of 5 Whys, in general, is that the person answering might not know that answer to a particular ‘Why‘. In the realm of life design, this uncertainty can be helpful in pinpointing assumptions, as well as uncovering deeper values and motivations.

Personally, I think 5 Whys can be quite powerful when reflecting on a next step, especially one that might feel standard like:

  • declaring a major
  • going on to graduate/professional school
  • obtaining a typical job for your field

In framing the 5 Whys for personal reflection, there are three important steps that I take:

  1. Pre-Activity
  2. Framing 5 Whys for Personal Reflection
  3. Follow-Up Activity
1. Pre-Activity

The pre-activity should help generate a list of potential problem statements. This is important in case participants feel like their initial ‘Why?‘ question falls flat. Having a set of insights to draw upon can help restart the activity

2. Framing 5 Whys for Personal Reflection

While the 5 Whys activity is relatively simple to explain, it needs further framing in order to land. Here are a few things that I do:

  • Mention that you don’t always have to get to the fifth why. You can cut it short or go beyond. It’s up to you.
  • Use the insights from the previous activity (i.e., pre-activity) to come up with your initial why question.
  • Explain there are many ways to ask ‘Why?You can keep it simple and ask ‘Why?‘ or ‘Why is that?‘ OR frame a why questions based on the previous example.
  • Provide an example of doing the activity ( e.g., mock interview, slide, etc.)
3. Follow-Up Activity

I find it helpful to do a follow-up activity after doing the 5 Whys. It’s important that if an insight is made, that something is done with it. If you’re short on time, you can always have a quick group debrief about the activity.

Example slide of 5 Whys for gradaute study

Example #2: 5 Whys for Informational Interviews

Informational interviews are informal conversations with people working in an area or on a topic that you might be interested in. This goal of the interview is for the interviewer to learn – not land a position. They are often informal and quick.

These interviews are a common part of the prototype phase in life design (also called life design interviews). The 5 Whys activity can be applied during an informational interview in order to help interviewers dive deeper and learn more about their interviewee, the organization, and more.

In framing the 5 Whys for an informational interview, there are three things that I tell students:

  1. Have a list of initial questions prepared as a base your ‘Why?’ questions. These questions can help if there is a lull in the conversation.
  2. Make sure to frame your ‘Why?’ in a way that doesn’t come across as interrogating.
  3. Practice with someone (or yourself) as the exercise might feel awkward at first.
Initial questions brainstorm before practiving 5 Whys activity

Closing Thoughts

The 5 Whys is a simple activity that can be used in various life design settings.

When I first introuduced the 5 Whys to a group of students, it was met with mixed results. Key frustrations amongst students echoed key critiques of the activity overall – getting to the fifth why, framing questions, etc.

This feedback helped me better frame the activity – no matter the setting.

Students have reported back that when they have decided to employ the technique, they learned valuable pieces of information – either about themselves or about the people they were interviewing.

When framed correctly, the 5 Whys activity can be a powerful tool that can be deployed throughout the life design process.

Have you used the 5 Whys? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.

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