Skip to content

The Power Of Asking Why

2018 February 21
by Greg Satell

Today’s problems can sometimes seem almost insurmountable. Although we’ve made strong progress over the last decade in many areas such as violence, extreme poverty and global health, issues like climate change, income inequality and a rise in populist authoritarianism still loom large.

Education could be a possible bulwark against many of these problems, providing a greater supply of skilled people to solve them, but here again we have issues. The US routinely scores poorly in international PISA tests and the OECD recently found that the US is falling behind other countries in college graduates.

100Kin10 is a non-profit trying to help turn things around. It realized that it’s not enough to simply deal with surface problems, you need to get at root causes, but those can be devilishly hard to identify. Nevertheless, they found that a productivity hack called the 5 Whys from the famed Toyota Production System was able to help point the way forward.

The Multi-Headed Problem Monster

The education system in the US has no shortage of problems. Poor test scores, unengaged parents, discouraged teachers and sometimes uncaring, bureaucratic administrators. Even at the college level — traditionally an American strength — the US is falling behind. Student loans condemn a generation to indentured servitude and even food insecurity has become an issue on many campuses.

Of notable concern is STEM education, in which US performance is particularly shabby. So when President Obama announced a goal to recruit and train 100,000 STEM teachers in 10 years, Talia Milgrom-Elcott found herself inspired and decided to build a network to help achieve it. That’s how 100Kin10 was born.

Yet hiring STEM teachers isn’t just a matter of setting up booths at job fairs or posting some help-wanted ads. Bright young graduates with STEM degrees are highly coveted by private industry and often encouraged by professors and administrators to take more prestigious jobs. Even if you can convince them to go into teaching, you still have to keep them engaged.

As Milgrom-Elcott told me, “Once you realize that it’s not simply about recruiting teachers, but retaining them, you begin to realize that it’s not just about identifying great candidates and getting them excited about the prospect of teaching, but preparation, what goes on in the classroom, in the teachers lounge, interactions with parents, administrators, everything.”

“Focusing on discrete problems leads to pointed, small fixes,” she continued. “For example, to combat the lack of STEM teachers, you might offer incentives to bright young people. But if they leave after a few years, that amounts to little more than than a band-aid. To actually move the needle you have to get at root causes.”

The Five Whys

An important piece of insight came in the form of a column in The New York Times by Charles Duhigg. The popular author noticed that however much he and his wife wanted to get home on time to eat dinner with their kids, they inevitably ended up getting caught up at work and arriving home late.

So Duhigg tried out a technique he’d come across when researching Toyota for his book on productivity, Smarter, Faster, Better. It’s deceptively simple. You simply keep asking “why?” until you identify a root cause that you can solve. Usually it takes about 5 “whys” to get there.

In Duhigg’s case, the first “why” of he and his wife arriving late to dinner was because they had work to finish. Why? Because there were pesky little tasks, like responding to emails, that they needed to get done. Why? Because they couldn’t get to them during the day. Why? Because they arrived at work just before their first meeting. Why? Because they were busy getting the kids ready for school.

By the fifth “why” he realized that the problem wasn’t so much that they got caught up at work, but that it took too long to get the kids ready for school. The conundrum was solved by having the kids lay out their clothes for school the night before. The Duhiggs soon began having family dinners regularly.

Identifying The Whys Of Education

100Kin10 is, in many ways, an unusual organization. It’s not set up to execute projects, but rather to support and guide a network of more than 300 partners. So Milgrom-Elcott and her team decided that tapping into all of that collective knowledge and expertise could be a tremendous asset.

“Once we began asking the “whys” we realized that no matter how smart any of us thought we were, we were only part of the picture,” she told me. “So we started asking the whys in conferences, small workshops, surveys and one-on-one interviews. We found over a hundred root causes, from issues with time for collaboration to student loan debt.”

For example, one stated reason that top students don’t want to go into teaching is because it lacks prestige. Why? One reason is that their professors discourage it as a profession? Why? Because administrators discourage it. Why? Because it performs poorly on the US News & World Report rankings? Why? Because the census doesn’t classify teaching as a STEM profession.

They found dozens of examples like these, where a seemingly nebulous, poorly defined issues like “prestige” could be transformed into more concrete action items, such as working to change a census classification. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s easy, but at least you know where to start.

Driving Change

After about a year of asking the questions, Milgrom-Elcott’s team identified seven themes, ranging from prestige and the lack of opportunities for career advancement to the need for teachers to have more opportunities to shape curriculums and better resources and materials. Each of these themes had 15 to 20 root causes each. It was a bit overwhelming.

So 100Kin10 partnered with complexity theorists, network mappers and an ecologist to identify underlying issues that connected the themes and pinpointed the highest-impact root causes. Together, they built a network map of grand challenges to identify actionable projects that the 100Kin10 network could begin working to solve.

“There are a lot of reasons it’s hard to solve our biggest problems, like getting and keeping great teachers,” Milgrom-Elcott said. “But not all those reasons have the same impact. If you address the right ones, they make everything else better. Those are the ones we found through our mapping, and they’re the ones we’re mobilizing the network to solve.

That’s the power of asking “why?” By continually questioning you can get beyond mere grievances and start attacking core problems and start making a real difference.

– Greg


An earlier version of this article first appeared in

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS