By Renee HoJanuary 5, 2015

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Like many others, you want to make sure the problem you’re working on matters to constituents. So, logically, you might ask them for some feedback.

But how, exactly, should you ask for this feedback? There must be some ways that are better than others. Simply asking, “What is the problem you’re facing?” is often too broad to get manageable, actionable feedback. At the same time, asking, “What is the problem you have with teachers?” could be too specific and biased. If you’re concerned about student learning outcomes, the problem may not be with the teachers. It could be that students aren’t attending class, for example.

Beyond finding a problem that matters, you want to find a problem that is manageable.

Manageable problems are those that you can actually resolve. Let’s say you’re in the business of solid waste management in a city. If you ask people, “What is the solid waste problem here?” They might say, “Waste is everywhere. People throw their waste indiscriminately.” This is useful information but it’s unwieldy and doesn’t provide a clear entry point for effectively solving the problem.

One promising approach is to start with a broad question and gradually focus it. Doing so prevents asking leading questions—those with your own assumptions about the problem—but allows you to arrive at a root cause of a problem that can be realistically addressed.

The “5 Whys” technique is useful for exactly this. As the name implies, you ask “why?” five times in response to each answer you get. It comes from production process theory and can be applied to many types of problem solving.

Let’s start with an easy, common example of the “5 Whys” technique. Imagine the situation is that a car will not start.

 

  1. WHY? – THE BATTERY IS DEAD.
  2. WHY? – THE ALTERNATOR IS NOT FUNCTIONING.
  3. WHY? – THE ALTERNATOR BELT HAS BROKEN.
  4. WHY? – THE ALTERNATOR BELT WAS WELL BEYOND ITS USEFUL SERVICE LIFE AND NOT REPLACED.
  5. WHY? – THE VEHICLE WAS NOT MAINTAINED ACCORDING TO THE RECOMMENDED SERVICE SCHEDULE.

 

Now let’s apply this technique to an example in international development. The “5 Whys” technique is described by Andrews, Pritchett, and Woolcock in their paper, Doing Problem Driven Work, and is applied to a situation in which money is lost in service delivery.

 

  1. WHY? – FUNDS BUDGETED FOR SERVICES ARE DISBUSED FOR OTHER PURPOSES.
  2. WHY? – LOOPHOLES IN DISBURSEMENT SYSTEMS ALLOW RELOCATION.
  3. WHY? – DISBURSEMENT SYSTEMS ARE MISSING KEY CONTROLS.
  4. WHY? – DISBURSEMENT SYSTEM DESIGNS WERE INSUFFICIENT AND HAVE NEVER BEEN IMPROVED.
  5. WHY? – WE LACK RESOURCES AND SKILLS TO IMPROVE SYSTEM DESIGNS.

 

In the example above, it is clear that the first feedback (Why #1) is too general for any real action. But by the time you get to the last feedback (Why #5), there is relatively concrete that can be acted upon.

Asking for feedback is not meant to be a quick, superficial exercise. It means spending some time with constituents to make sure the root causes of problems are identified. Asking for feedback with just one question will likely be insufficient. Instead, you may have to ask “why” fives times, or perhaps even more. In this focused way, projects can address both what matters to constituents and what can be realistically managed.

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