Discover the root cause of a problem by drilling down below the surface to relate it to its context. 

👥 5 – 10 person | ⏰ 1 hour and more


This exercise helps to relate a problem to its context so your group can see the bigger picture. The goal is to move beyond the surface of the problem and discover the root cause. By reading more between the lines, you will gain meaningful insights into the source of a problem and get the greatest leverage out of solving it. 

Problems are tackled more sustainably when they’re addressed at the source. 


  1. Before the meeting, choose a problem your team needs to evaluate. Write the problem in an area visible to all the group members. Try to draw something to represent it. 
  2. Distribute sticky notes to each player and ask them to number five of them 1 through 5. 
  3. Ask the players to review the problem statement and ask themselves WHY it’s a problem. Encourage them to be honest and to write the first thing that comes to mind each time they ask “Why?”. If they jump immediately to the perceived root of the problem, they may miss the opportunity to see the stages. 
  4. Have the players write their first response on sticky note 1. 
  5. Tell the players to ask themselves WHY the answer on sticky note 1 is true and write their next response on sticky note 2. 
  6. Next, tell the players to ask WHY the answer on sticky note 2 is true and write the response on sticky note 3. 
  7. Repeat this until every numbered sticky note has a response on it. 
  8. Below the problem statement, write the word “Why?” five times in a column; draw lines to create columns for each player’s set of notes. Ask the players to post their responses on the wall, starting with 1 at the top and ending with 5 at the bottom. 
  9. Review the “Why” columns with the group and note commonalities and differences. 
  10. Allow for discussion. 
  11. Rewrite the problem statement on a sheet of flip-chart paper. Work with the group to build consensus on which of the five “Whys” offer the most meaningful insight into the problem. Ask a volunteer to rewrite the “Whys”—one per sticky note—as the group agrees on them. Put the stickies in a final column under the problem statement. If you have time, discuss “what’s next.” 
  12. Note: Five Whys is a good start, but many problems require more or less interrogation to get to the root. Ask “Why?” until you feel the group is getting somewhere. Build longer WHY columns if necessary, and keep going until the players get to meaningful insights. 


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