What we can learn from three-year-olds and a roll of the dice

[Image courtesy of Katie Sayer at Flickr Creative Commons]

A web designer I know told me recently about a client he’d had to part ways with. This client was, it appears, unable to do two things: give clear, precise feedback, and make a decision.

Which made working together virtually impossible, my friend said.

The project ran on endlessly, and didn’t seem to be getting any closer to conclusion. So in the end, he and his client decided to call it a day – amicably, but with a certain measure of frustration. And my friend was left scratching his head and wondering why.

So was I, but since I’ve been in that situation myself and scratched without resolution, I decided not to offer any suggestions or advice.

Sometimes, things just go awry and you have to move on. 

Ask and you shall receive

And then a strange thing happened. I discovered two tools that might help my friend – or me – in just such a situation in the future. 

The first is The Five Whys.

If you’re a Six Sigma Black Belt, you’ll know all about this technique, as it’s part of the Analyse phase in the Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control (DMAIC) cycle that helps in the search for optimisation and improvement.

And if you’re not a black belt, you’ll have experienced this anyway if you’ve ever heard a three-year-old child try to get to the bottom of things.

Why do I have to eat carrots? (Because they’re good for you.) Why are they good for me? (Because they’ve got lots of vitamins.) Why do I need vitamins? (Because they help you stay healthy.) Why do I need to be healthy? (OK, leave the carrots.)

The Five Whys was invented back in the 1930s by by Toyota Founder Kiichiro Toyoda’s father Sakichi, and popularised in the 1970s. And it’s really just a simple way of finding the root cause of a problem – in their case, problems with production of cars.

The fact of the matter

You can use this approach for most problems – but there is one proviso. It must be a problem where you have the facts readily to hand. If you find yourself making suppositions, then you’re simply going to complicate the problem.

This could have helped my friend, but he would have had to really pin down his client on the answers: Why is the website not right? (I don’t like it.) Why don’t you like it? (It’s too interactive/there’s too much happening.) Why is that a problem? (I think the audience may find it confusing.) Why? (Because they’re slightly older and prefer a straightforward approach.)

As you can see, in this (imagined) example it didn’t even take five questions. Four was enough to get to the root cause, and decide on a plan of action: make the website simpler and easier to navigate.

It’s important to reiterate that this example is fact-based. Even the assumptions the client makes come from a first-hand knowledge of his audience, customers and prospects. 

If, on the other hand, we were asking ‘Why are people not downloading our free e-book?’ it might be a bit tricker. Or ‘Why are people not signing up for our newsletter?’ In both cases, we either need to make a guess or find out more information.

Since we can’t get inside the head of the potential reader (we don’t even know who they are) we need to deploy analytics to track behaviour, vary the copy and call to action, and carry out split testing. Only then will we get to the root cause. 

So the Five Whys are great for simple, fact-based problems – and they’re often the ones that take up a lot of time.

With those out of the way, we can address the more complex ones. 

The die is cast

Which brings me to my second tool. Just like we have simple and complex problems, we have simple and complex decisions.

The simple ones are binary, where there’s no right or wrong answer (yet). Website base colour: red or green? Price: £9.99 or £9.49? Offer: 30 or 15 days’ free access?

It even applies to personal decisions. Stay in or go out? Holiday in Rome or Paris? The blue or the grey sweater?

We’re all faced with these seemingly random decisions every day, and they take up a disproportionate amount of time.

And then I heard of an intriguing idea: decide it on the roll of a dice. 

Somebody I know tried this for a week, and it transformed her life. Suddenly, trivial but time-consuming decisions became a breeze. She carried her dice with her everywhere, and rolled it when she needed to.

And at the end of the week, when she put the dice back in her bottom drawer, she carried on simply making snap decisions without sweating the small stuff.  

So there you are: Five Whys and a dice. Two solutions that could help us all cut through the confusion, and focus on the really important stuff.

It may be too late for my friend and his client, but it’s not too late for you. Or me. 

Let’s get rolling. And don’t ask me why.