The why, what and how of ‘9 why’s’

When not to partner, when not collaborate? (Drawing credit: Olivier Cornelissen / ILRI)

Whenever you can do something alone, without anyone’s help, just indulge yourself.

No need to embarrass yourself with collaboration. As the saying goes: “want to go fast? Go alone”. Because collaboration takes time. It’s not a ‘need to have’; collaboration is rather something that is unavoidable for high stake and/or high complexity issues.

But whether you go the lone wolf way or the collaborative way, one thing you can’t afford to miss is ‘why’ you’re doing this.

Well, actually you can spare yourself that trouble. Just that you may be wasting your time.

So why are we doing certain things? Why are we doing this activity? Why are we working in that position? Why do we like what we do (or not)? Why does it feel like what we’re supposed to do?

These are all good questions. And the reason why we all deserve to ask ourselves about the 9 why’s every so often. Asking ourselves why is generally a good idea

9 Why’s is a specific methodology from the Liberating Structures (LS) repertoire.

Why 9 Why’s?

If you consider that the single most cited mistake (in the Workshops work podcast of Myriam Hadnes) made about meetings and workshops is that they don’t have a clear purpose, 9 Why’s aims precisely at clarifying what purpose lay ahead of you. It follows the Simon Sinek’s gospel of ‘start with why‘.

I don’t think there’s any simpler way to lay this out… What makes sense?

What is 9 Why’s looking into?

9 Why’s doesn’t settle with asking why once indeed. It doesn’t have to ask precisely 9 times ‘why’, but the point the microstructure is trying to make is to get to the bedrock of our purpose.

It could be our collective purpose – and 9 Why’s can be an syncretic message combining various individual takes on the collective purpose.

It could be our individual purpose.

It could be as our personal or collective mission statement, or it could be what is motivating a one-off activity etc.

How to run 9 Why’s (originally) and what is not always working so well about it

These are the standard steps from 9 why’s in the original LS gospel:

  • Individually, list what activities you are spending time on (2-5 minutes)
  • Interview each other for 5 minutes each, starting with ‘what are you working on?’ and asking ‘why is that important for you’
  • Switch between interviewer and interviewee after 5 minutes
  • While interviewing, take notes about what the interviewee says that matters to them (“Take notes for your partner – capturing and documenting important statements, phrases, fragments, or words that might help them compose a description of their purpose”)
  • Begin writing your purpose statement e.g. ‘my work exists in order to…’, using inspiration from the fragments captured by your interviewer
  • Potentially mix pairs into a quartet to share statements and/or important insights that
  • Invite the whole group to reflect on ‘how do our purposes influence the next steps we take’ for 5 minutes.

The intention of 9 Why’s is wonderful.

The practice of doing it is, however, rather irritating.

Indeed after a rather short while it becomes really annoying to keep hearing ‘but why does this matter to you?’. Even more so to just keep hearing ‘why?’

Repeatedly asking ‘why’ tends to put people on the defensive. Indeed it feels like they have to defend the reasons that motivate their actions and at the same time it makes them feel like they haven’t thought it through. No one likes to be put in a negative light.

On the interviewer part there is a risk of transforming into an inquisitor that is tormenting the interviewee, rather than supporting them.

And finally, another limitation is that the structure may pan out differently if you focus on a personal / individual purpose or if you are asking people to define their collective purpose…

How to run 9 Why’s more effectively?

If working alone (e.g. on your purpose statement):

  • Individually (3-5 minutes)
    • List the immediate purpose(s) coming to mind about what you do
    • Also list activities that describe your work
    • Feel free to add your own meta commentary about what gives you energy in doing this
  • Interview each other (5 minutes)
    • Hear first the bits and bobs that the interviewee has noted down for themselves and what their immediate purpose seems to be
    • Ask them their 9 why’s by using a variety of sentences and tactics e.g.”
      • What for?
      • Because…?
      • Tell me more…
      • And the next step here is?
      • What is your ultimate goal with that?
      • Is that the rock bottom of it?
      • When everything is said and done…
      • And the gist of this is…?
      • And this is significant in the sense of…?
      • Is that contributing to something even more important?
      • You may also beat around the bush with ‘What if…’?
  • Switch roles following the same process (5 minutes)
  • Share your fragments, notes etc. with the interviewee and each compose your own purpose statement (5 minutes)
    • If time allows, offer your own purpose statement to the interviewee, from the best of your understanding and synthesis capability
  • Challenge each other to come up with a statement that feels like the most complete (5 minutes) and if this doesn’t feel sufficient, re-do the 9 Why’s from the place you landed with at the end of the previous iteration.

If working on a common purpose:

  • Individually (3-5 minutes)
    • List the immediate purpose(s) coming to mind about what you are collectively trying to do
    • Also list activities that describe that collective work
    • Write all of these on different post-its or virtual notes
  • Interview each other (5 minutes)
    • Hear first the bits and bobs that the interviewee has noted down for themselves and what their immediate purpose seems to be, and stay with them until they feel complete with their 9 why’s
    • When you feel they’ve exhausted their first draft thinking, ask them about their 9 why’s endorsing a complete supporter role, and using a variety of sentences e.g.
      • What for?
      • Because…?
      • Tell me more…
      • And the next step here is?
      • What is your ultimate goal with that?
      • Is that the rock bottom of it?
      • When everything is said and done…
      • And the gist of this is…?
      • And this is significant in the sense of…?
      • Is that contributing to something even more important?
      • You may also beat around the bush with ‘What if…’?
  • Switch roles following the same process (5 minutes)
  • Share your fragments, notes etc. with the interviewee and try to compose a purpose statement that emerges from your pair (5 minutes)
  • As a pair, meet another pair to form a quartet to discuss your purpose statements and to compare the nuances. the fragments you used and discarded etc. (5-8 minutes)
  • As a whole group, hear the different purpose statements, meta-plan/organise all your listed activities/purposes on the wall, and if needed and possible come up with one general purpose statement for the group, building upon the collective statements, fragments and ‘debris’ that are there… or delegate some people to do the next 8 Why’s based on all the contributions of everyone?

A final tip, in order to make this even more effective, you might want to run ‘helping heuristics‘ to identify what is your preferred heuristic to help and to being helped…

Just give it a try, and find out how meaningful, liberating and extraordinary it is to hit the true purpose of what you/we are trying to do and achieve! Perhaps, like me, you will get to see 8 Why’s as not just a method, but a go-to lens that precedes a lot of good things…

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea

(Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

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