We have a BIG problem.
It affects just about every facet of our lives, from the ideas we foster, to the family we love, to companies we build and to the stories we tell.
That’s the punch-line. And here’s the background.
The circumstances that form the setting for an event (i.e. context) are essential to how we make decisions that affect our family, our teams and many others, in some cases the lives of millions of people. Unfortunately, context gets lost and can disappear altogether when our attention is diverted from diving deeper into an important topic at hand. And it’s easy to add colour to this issue. In 2015 a study conducted by Microsoft’s Consumer Insights division identified that digitalised lifestyles have contributed to the diminishing attention span of humans from 12 seconds to 8 seconds.
Today, nearly two years on, the fight to gain our attention even for a second is fierce. Each day we’re bombarded with ‘headlines’ that feature in news, social media, powerpoint presentations and even in stories told by a friend or family member. Some we believe, some are confusing and some defy belief (and there have been plenty of those lately!).
So what happens when people move away from understanding context and begin scanning and accepting ‘headlines’ as reality?
The answer is many things, none of them good.
And it happens A LOT.
But here’s the good news, there’s a simple way to reconnect with context…
If this suggestion conjures up a vague link to a motor vehicle you’re on the right track. The idea of asking ‘why?’ five times originated in the 1950’s from the pioneer of the Toyota Production System, Taiichi Ohno. This guy is also considered the grandfather of continuous improvement. When ever an issue cropped up he encouraged his team to explore problems first-hand until the root causes were found.
“Observe the production floor without preconceptions,” he would advise. “Ask ‘why’ five times about every matter.”
This is powerful for one simple reason: Each time you ask ‘why?’ more surfaces about the circumstances that form the setting for an event (i.e. context). And this leads to a clear understanding of the root cause.
Asking ‘why?’ 5 times is very useful when something is counter-intuitive or confusing. And while you can do this easily, you should also encourage your team (in particular new hires) to do the same to you. It will help them achieve a similar, if not equal, level of contextual understanding as your own and it might also expose chinks in logic that until this point have been hiding in plain sight.
There have been a number of times when I’ve been asked ‘why?’ 5 times and on the fourth or fifth ‘why’ I’ve had no other option but to say ‘I really don’t know’. This admission has often turned out to be the beginning of very product collaborations because those involved can now start pursuing an opportunity based on shared understanding.
I ask ‘why?’ 5 times:
Knowledge and wisdom does not exist without context. If you feel as though you’ve become good at skimming ‘headlines’ but still feel uninformed, try asking ‘why?’ 5 times and get the context and answers you need. You’ll be surprised at what you learn.
Originally published at medium.com