Mark Needham

Thoughts on Software Development

Retrospective: The 5 whys

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Last week my colleague Pat Fornasier ran our team’s fortnightly retrospective and one of the exercises we did was ‘the 5 whys’.

I’ve always wanted to see how the 5 why’s would pan out but could never see how you could fit it into a normal retrospective.

Pat was able to do this by using the data gathered by an earlier timeline exercise where the team had to plot the main events that had happened over the last 6 months.

We ended up with 5 key areas and split into groups to explore those topics further.

Wikipedia describes the 5 whys like so:

The 5 Whys is a questions-asking method used to explore the cause/effect relationships underlying a particular problem. Ultimately, the goal of applying the 5 Whys method is to determine a root cause of a defect or problem.

My group had to investigate the topic ‘Why are we so obsessed with points?’.

These were some of my observations from the exercise:

  • It’s very easy to lose focus on the exercise and start talking about solutions or ideas when only a couple of whys have been followed.

    Pat suggested that this problem could be solved by having a facilitator who helps keep the discussion on track.

  • We went down a dead-end a few times where our 5th why ended up being something quite broad which we couldn’t do anything about.

    We ended up going back up the chain of whys to see whether we could branch off a different way on any of the and it was actually reasonably easy to think of other whys the further up you went.

  • By going beyond surface reasons for things you actually end up with much more interesting conversations although I think it does also become a little bit more uncomfortable for people.

    For example we ended up discussing what ‘minimum viable product’ actually means for us and a couple of the group had a much different opinion to the product owner. It would have been interesting if we’d been able to continue the discussion for longer.

  • For our particular topic we ended up discussing why the deadline we have was set when it was and couldn’t really come up with any reason for why it couldn’t be changed other than we’d been told it couldn’t.

    It would have been more interesting to have the people external to the team who set the deadline so that we could understand if there was more to it.

I tried looking for a video to see a real life example of a 5 whys discussion being facilitated but I wasn’t able to find one.

Perryn pointed me to a chat log on the cucumber wiki where Aslak asks the 5 whys to someone trying to articulate why they want to have a login feature in their application but I’d be interested in seeing more examples if anyone knows any.

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Written by Mark Needham

October 24th, 2011 at 10:53 pm

Posted in Agile

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