Douglas Adams wrote in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy of a giant super computer that after many years of processing finally answered the question “what is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?” It confirmed that the answer was in fact “42”. People were confused as it didn’t seem to be a sensible answer, so the computer explained that perhaps their problem was that when seeking the answer, they hadn’t first understood the question.

I love this analogy. I think of it often. When I can’t get an answer to feel satisfying I like to remind myself to ask a better question.

In agile we often use tools like the 5-whys to get to the root cause of a problem, so that we don’t just fix symptoms. (If you haven’t come across 5-whys before, rule 1 is that there can be more or less than 5 whys in a 5-whys)

If I did a 5 whys following an incident where I got into work late* one Monday, it might go like this:

q1) Why was I late to work?

a1) I missed the train

q2) why did I miss the train?

a2) I left home too late and didn’t want to get (another**) speeding ticket

q3) why did I leave home too late?

a3) I was playing a computer game rather than getting ready

q4) why was I playing a computer game rather than getting ready?

a4) I DON’T KNOW! its just so addictive!

Where as the 5 whys helps me get to the root cause of my problem (that I find computer games too absorbing to allow me to have a quick 5 minutes before I go to work), it doesn’t necessarily help me solve it. This is where asking a better question comes in.

Perhaps the question I should have asked was:

Does it matter if I am late for work very occasionally?

If it is once every year, I might reasonably decide that it’s probably not a huge problem. However, if I found asking this question uncomfortable because it wasn’t an occasional occurrence, I might instead ask:

How can I stop being late for work so often?

Both these Better Questions now include a frequency that the event happens. This has a huge impact on the answer I would now give, and potentially takes me down completely different paths to understand the root cause of my problem: I was late on Monday.

As a collective, companies must have done 100s or 1000s of 5-whys along these lines! There is always a really good reason why a database goes down, and every 5-whys done will have come up with a different reason. But if we truly want to resolve this problem, the reason WHY the database went down isn’t perhaps as interesting as one of these better questions:

Why does the database keep going down on Fridays?

Why does the database go down so often?

Why did the database suddenly go down today?

Why does the database only seem to go down when Joe isn’t in?

Why can’t we get some notice that the database is suffering BEFORE it goes down?

Each of these could have started with the same “why did the database go down?” question. Taking time to ask a better question, in a more thoughtful way, gives us a much richer experience.

I also think it brings us closer to truly understanding the problem and in my opinion, gives a more satisfying outcome in your solution.

Try it – I’d love to know how you get on.


*I’m never late for work!

**OK, that bits true.