Discovering Why Before Jumping to What

Published by Joana Jebsen
on Aug 09, 2019

It’s human nature to rush to a solution once a problem has been discovered. Though it might seem to make sense to take this approach with LX design, designing effective learning experiences requires putting the learner’s needs front and center – and it’s impossible to do that without first digging deep to find out why those needs exist. What is the root cause?

One challenge with determining the root cause of a problem is ensuring a symptom has not been mistaken for the cause. A simplified example: low attendance and students dropping out of a particular online course might be seen as lack of interest, when in reality, it might be due to lack of adequate preparation and remediation. As more students believed success was out of reach, attendance decreased, while drop rates increased. A stop-gap solution would be to focus on increasing student engagement by adding more multimedia or other bells and whistles. A more accurate approach would be to design learning experiences that were properly scaffolded for subject mastery.

To avoid designing solutions to symptoms vs. causes, there are many human-centered design thinking tools LX design teams can employ with clients to get at the root causes of their problems at hand, for both their institution and their learners. One such tool is the 5 Whys. Invented by Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota Industries, The 5 Whys is an analytical interview technique aimed at understanding the thoughts and beliefs that drive specific behaviors.

Long popular in the business world, we’ve found this technique very fruitful in the education arena as well. Why? Because when used correctly, the 5 Whys prevents stakeholders from remaining on the surface of a problem, latching onto top-level symptoms, and then developing solutions from that place.

Though seemingly simple, the 5 Whys can be quite powerful when implemented correctly.

For example, at a recent LXD retreat with our team of designers and project managers, we tackled the question of why Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) drop out of a project before completion. Instead of playing the blame game or defaulting to a surface solution, we used the 5 Whys technique to get to the bottom of the situation.

Through the 5 Whys process, it became clear that the problem wasn’t the SMEs. It was actually further down-stream, with our project managers’ ability to onboard, train and motivate their SME partners. Though SMEs are hired for their subject matter expertise, each has a different level of experience with LXD projects, especially the specifics for project execution. In addition, with teaching and/or research as their primary job, their time is limited.

Once we discovered the root cause, we were able to take the right action – and developed new training for our project managers on how to effectively support SME’s throughout the design process. This included simplifying client guidelines, the right way to properly implement a given task, building a SME community around a project and other tips for keeping motivation high.

The result? More SME’s staying with a project through completion. Without the 5 Whys exercise, we would have jumped to the most obvious solution: intensifying our vetting process or hiring more SMEs.

Next time you’re faced with a problem, make a note of what you think the cause is. Then tap into the power of the 5 Whys and see if you land on the same result.

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