December 14, 2019

Ask '5 Whats' to get to a new answer

You may have heard about the 5 Whys. It says that you should keep asking “Why?” till you get to the root cause of a problem. It may not take you exactly five, but the number is a good shorthand to remember how much deeper you may have to dig to find the root cause.

The ‘5 Whys’ is a tool to ask a better question. But what about finding a better answer?

Presenting…the ‘5 Whats’:

  1. What are we talking about?
  2. What is the usual story? (The standard wisdom or explanation behind the thing we are talking about)
  3. What is a different story?
  4. So, what?
  5. What will you call it?

Exhibit 1: The Sex and Cash Theory

A good example is Hugh Macleod’s Sex and Cash Theory

What are we talking about? People keep wanting to do what they love, or waiting for a time when they can finally do what they love.

What is the usual story? Someday it is going to happen, or find something that is at an intersection of the two.

What it a different story? This is a false hope, this will never happen.

So what? Embrace it, you have to do one and then another, but not try to merge them.

What shall we call it? The sex and cash theory.

Exhibit 2: The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius

Another is Paul Graham’s Bus Ticket Theory of Genius

What are we talking about? Geniuses put in hours of work to get good

What is the usual story? You have to put in the time to get good; 10,000 hours; better start early

What is a different story? The hours were not directed but undirected. They were not trying to get ‘good’, they were just endlessly curious about the topic, and it just so happened that the thing they were curious about turned out to be useful (unlike say the hobby of collecting bus tickets). The goodness was a side-effect of their undirected curiosity not the intent

What can one do? Be interested in many things.

What to call it? The bus ticket theory of genius


Outcome mindset

Asking ‘5 Whys’ is similar to what Safi Bahcall calls a system mindset versus an outcome mindset. Take a game of chess, one you lost. When you just analyze why a certain move lost you the game, and what move would you have played instead, that is an outcome mindset (outcome being to win the game). In the system mindset, you analyse how to change your decision process behind the move. It is what Gary Kasparov does:

How he decided on that move, in that moment, in the context of that opponent, and what that means for how he should change his decision-making and game-preparation routine in the future. (Excerpt from Bahcall’s Loonshots)

Mad-libs are useful

Design thinking says that to find a new direction or a new frame on a problem, start by uncovering a latent or non-obvious user need, or a fresh insight on an existing user need.

To get there, you start by observing or talking to people in the problem space you are working in. For example, if you are designing a better hotel experience, you might speak to tourists.

Thomas Both from the Stanford had turned the process of taking these conversations and observations and ekeing out learnings from these into a helpful mad-lib:

We met…(user you are inspired by) We were surprised to notice…(tension, contradiction or surprise) We wonder if this means…( what you inferred, also called an insight)
It would be game-changing to…(a new direction to explore possible solutions in).

The ‘5 Whats’ is definitely a spin on this.

So, what…

From Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work

“I had a professor in college who returned our graded essays, walked up to the chalkboard, and wrote in huge letters: “SO WHAT?” She threw the piece of chalk down and said, “Ask yourself that every time you turn in a piece of writing.” It’s a lesson I never forgot.”