UseThe "Five Nots" to Solve People Problems

by Anne P. Kreitzberg on Apr 10, 2012

UseThe Five Nots to Solve People Problems

I recently came across a video from the Harvard Business Review in which Eric Ries, Enterpreneur-in-Residence at Harvard Business School describes how he uses the "Five Whys" technique to uncover the root cause of problems. The "Five Whys" is a simple and useful technique but I realized that there was a nice way to extend it when you're dealing with people problems. I call this extension of the concept "The Five Nots." The Five Whys and the Five Nots techniques work together to help you map out people problems that may be contributing to the problem even though they are not its root cause, Let's start with a look at the Five Whys.

The Five Whys

The Five Whys is a straightforward technique. Here is how you do it: When a problem presents, ask “Why did this happen?”  That's the "first why."  The answer you get is the immediate cause of the problem but it may not be the root cause. To get closer to the root cause, ask the same question again about the immediate cause. Ask "why did this happen" to get one layer deeper.

Keep repeating this process and after (perhaps) four rounds of peeling back the onion, you eventually get a better understanding of the problem and its underlying causes rather addressing the surface symptoms of the problem. There is nothing magic about the number five; if you feel you've gotten to the root cause you can stop. In most cases probing to a depth of five whys will get you to the root case of all but the most complex problems.

This simple technique is very powerful. Not only does it get you to the root cause, but it also lays out the problems that contribute to the situation you're trying to fix. Sometimes solving the root problem will clear everything up but most of the time you won't be so lucky.

I'd like to suggest that root causes are not necessarily the only problems worth fixing. It may be tempting to blow past the contributing problems as you focus on getting to the root cause jackpot answer to the fifth “why.” If the Five Whys uncovers people problems at any level you should address them.

The reason is that people problems won't just go away when you address the root cause. People resist change and if you don't address the problems you identify on your way to locating the root cause, they are likely to re-emerge, becoming the root cause of another, as yet unforeseen, problem.  

So as you uncover problems at each level, consider how  and how much they contribute to the situation you want to fix. Then make small, proportional investments in fixing each of the intermediate problems. This approach may feel  counter-intuitive to folks who don’t want to waste time fussing with anything other than fixing the core of a problem. Its value is that it leads to a more stable solution.

The Five Nots is a simple technique that can help you focus on how to effect the small but critical changes that are necessary so that the problem does not reassert itself. From a purely practical matter, people are not easy to fix - nor do they necessarily want to be fixed.  People are usually pretty comfortable with the way they are and do not see or think of themselves as a “root cause” of a business technology or process problem. We are not as malleable, logical or predictable as technology.

The Five Nots

That's where the "five nots" can be a useful tool. In my experience, suggestions that people change what they’re doing – even if it’s in their best interest to do so –  is met with at some of the Five Nots: 

  • Not now
  • Not in the budget
  • Not that way 
  • Not my problem
  • Not my priority

The  "nots" can be phrased in in various ways but at the end of the day the message is some flavor of "no."

In some organizations, the "not" will be clearly stated. In other organizations, the culture discourages bluntness. Often these organizations are ones that   take great pride in collaboration or consensus and regard "nots" as being impolite or impolitic. Visualize a cross-functional team meeting to come up with a solution to a problem. Everyone enthusiastically supports the change – in the meeting that is. It's not till much later that the unspoken “not that way” emerges. So you need to listen carefully and take corporate culture into account.

When you encounter a "not" it is often best not to simply ask why because that is often interpreted as confrontational rather than as problem solving. Instead, probe the "not with one of these questions:

 If You Are Told
 Not now
If this is bad timing to make a change, when would be better?
 Not in the budget
How much money do you think it would cost to make this change? How could we secure funding?
 Not that way
How can we integrate a change that would be least disruptive to our existing processes?
 Not my problem
How could you / your team make the situation better?
 Not my priority
Where does this project / problem fall in terms of your priorities?

These questions can help you zero in on the resistance to proposed changes that would directly affect how they work or interact with others. When you identify an area of resistance see if you can make appropriate changes so that the intermediate problem is reduced.

Use The 5 Whys to better understand and overcome the objections to The 5 Nots.  It's a good way to integrate agile critical thinking into your ongoing business process and to create real "buy in" for change.

  • What is your experience with The Five Why’s technique?
  • Do you find that it’s an “all or nothing” proposition as Ries suggests?
  • How willing are people to accept that their behavior may be root cause of a larger business problem?


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