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How The 5 Whys Can Help You to Set Better Goals

Posted by Jeff Roussel

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Dec 16, 2015 7:37:00 AM

goal.jpgWe’ve talked before about how the technique of the 5 Whys can be useful for root cause identification, but did you know it is also an effective goal setting aid? The ability to clearly articulate what you want to accomplish and why goes a long way toward achieving organizational alignment and clarity.

The 5 Whys Technique

The 5 Whys is a brilliantly simple approach to getting to the bottom of an issue. It starts with a statement, which is followed by the question, “Why?” Once it is answered, “Why” is asked again and again until the heart of the issue is uncovered. “Why” is asked as many times as necessary, but five seems to be a lucky number.

“Why” it Makes Sense for Goal Setting

We’ll look at some examples in a minute, but the idea is to get to the drivers behind the goals. You don’t necessarily change your goals as a result of the technique, but you will be able to more effectively communicate intent. When everyone understands why achieving certain objectives is important, engagement is increased and better decision making is possible. The process also reveals the consequence of failure to meet the goal.

The “Whys” in Practice

Let’s look at a personal and a business example.

I want to lose 15 pounds.”
Why do you want to lose 15 pounds?
Because I weigh too much for my height.”
Why do you care that you weigh too much for your height?
Because I’m worried that the excess weight will damage my health over time.”
Why do you care that the excess weight will damage your health over time?
"Because I want to be able to take care of myself as I age."
Why is it important that you can take care of yourself?
"Because I want to live independently"

Suddenly, this weight loss goal isn’t just about looking better in the mirror. It’s about preserving independence, something that’s a lot more meaningful and pressing.

An organization might start with a goal like:

"We want to increase revenue by 20%."
Why do we want to increase revenue by 20%?
"Because that will make us profitable."
Why do you want to be profitable?


At this point you’re probably thinking. Duh. Of course every company wants to be profitable. Do you really need to ask why? It’s a fair point, but think about a few possible answers.

              "We want to be profitable because we are running out of capital and need to become profitable to survive."

              "We want to be profitable to provide returns to shareholders."

              "We want to be profitable so that we can reinvest in the company." 

These are all great reasons, but each says something a little bit different about the direction of the company. There are likely small decisions being made every day that would be improved by clarity around the reason for the revenue objective.

When problem solving or goal setting, the 5 Whys is a great way to dig deeply enough to find the crux of the matter.

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Topics: Leadership

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