Back in the 1980s, a German theoretical psychologist named Dietrich Dörner conducted a fascinating series of experiments that offered amazing insights into the differences between good decision makers and bad ones.
He and his team used computers to create simulations of complex, interconnected systems ranging from small towns to African countries. Each of these systems was beset with a host of problems that threatened their very survival – everything from high infant mortality rates and drought to underperforming schools and stagnant industries. Then Dörner gave his research subjects dictatorial powers over those systems and challenged them so solve their underlying problems. It was like an early version of SimCity, albeit much darker and more complex.
Over the course of these experiments, Dörner discovered that bad decision makers shared several common traits. They focused on one aspect of the problem, rather than thinking complexly about all of the different moving pieces. They also jumped from one problem to another, rushing to spray water on one fire after another without ever putting any of them out. And they failed to anticipate the indirect consequences of their actions.
Dörner discovered that good decision makers also shared many common traits. They tended to think holistically, to approach problems methodically, and they were willing to try different approaches until they found one that worked.
But one of the most important things good decision makers did was ask “Why?”
As Dörner wrote in his excellent book, The Logic Failure:
Dörner was not the first person to appreciate the power of asking “Why?”
Toyota’s founder, Sakichi Toyoda, believed that asking “Why?” five times would reveal the root cause of any problem. In the 1950s, his deceptively simple method was codified by legendary quality guru Taiichi Ohno as part of the vaunted Toyota Production System.
Toyoda’s Five Whys is one of the simplest Red Team Thinking® tools we teach, but also one of the most powerful. One of our clients rewrote its entire turnaround strategy because a 30-minute Five Whys exercise revealed that it was trying to fix the wrong problem.
I believe why is one of the most powerful words in the English language. Asking “Why?” should be the first thing you, as a thinking leader, do when confronted with any problem. And you should keep asking “Why?” until you get to its root cause – because addressing the root cause is the only way to really solve a problem and make sure it stays solved.
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