At the moment, I am working through Todd Conklin’s books. A worthwhile exercise because they get me thinking about learning, how we involve people and how we do assessments and investigations.
I started with his latest book about asking better questions; a subject that very much appeals to me. One thing that stuck out right from the start, and also made me wonder, is that he favours asking “How” over asking “Why”. Going back, I noticed that he even dedicated his previous book “Pre-Accident Investigations” (that I have yet to read) to people who asked “How”.
Therefore, in line with the latest book, I wondered if “How” really is a better question than “Why”?
Before we continue with my musings, you might want to hear Todd himself on the subject in a rather short podcast. Here he argues that “How” is less inflammatory that “Why”. It is less blaming. It is a better way to start a conversation and avoid defensiveness than “Why”. The biggest pay-off for Todd is that it is much more operationally informative. “Why” ends usually up on some level with an incentive, which ends up with a choice (and had that choice not been made then the accident had not happened). According to Todd, “How” forces you to look at context and understand conditions. “How” takes you from the human element and puts you into the system/organisational activity. Complex systems do not have individual moments (causes). They have motions and conditions that should be understood.
Todd also says not to overthink it, just try it. Language changes and thinking changes and it may give you better opportunities for improvement.
Overthinking “How” and “Why”
I am sorry, because maybe I am going to overthink it. However, since Todd makes the point so forcefully, I just have to reflect a bit on it. I agree strongly that choice of language and the way you use it affect how you think and what you will find. The problem is that for me personally “How” does not add that special extra, or leads me more towards context than asking “Why”.
It may be a language thing (having other languages than English as my mother tongue), or my background (that includes both engineering and law school), but for me “How” asks for a mechanism. Granted, this may leave some room for context and conditions, but it mainly describes the event and not much of the surroundings and background. For me, “How”, is a rather technical question and often stops with direct cause(s). More or less. Feel free to disagree and experience this differently.
The driver for safety investigations should be curiosity, not accountability. I cannot see that “How” is a better expression for curiosity than “Why”. It is a different expression for curiosity for sure. Still, “Why” asks for (a) reason(s), and suggests clear-cut causal connection(s). By that, I do agree with Todd that “Why” may (mis)lead you to disregard complexity, while “How” leaves room for complexity even if it doesn’t ask for it explicitly. Still, both “How” and “Why” can do so if you ask it often enough in many different directions.
For me personally, “Why” would also be the better guide to develop ideas around local rationality. However, this also connects to the major drawback of the word. As Todd justly says: “Why” can easily lead you to decisions and choices that have been made and a major focus on the human element. The step towards judgement and blame is then quickly made. That may very well be the biggest issue with “Why”: the way “Why” has been practiced in the past, especially in the RCA-context of 5 Why linearity. “Why” is pretty much connected to the ‘old view’ of safety where errors are seen as causes and problems instead of as symptoms. Therefore, using “How” instead of “Why” can be very much of symbolic significance rather than that it really is superior.
Is “How” Really Better Than “Why”?
Trying to conclude: is “How” a better question? I do not know (yet). It is a different question, however, and that alone enrichens your view by using it.
A word of caution, however. I have not asked the man himself, but I am rather sure that Todd agrees: Asking “How” is not a silver bullet or magic wand. Asking “How” alone does not make you a better investigator. And the last thing we want or need is a ‘New View LEAN Consultant’ selling us a ‘5 How Model’.
That is why I would like you to actually think about the question for yourself. A simple instruction like “Ask how, not why” without any deeper understanding will/may backfire. I am afraid that without proper mind-set and training any simple question (especially when asked repeatedly) can or even will lead you astray. It may even be more important what you want to achieve with a question than what question you actually ask (although some questions are very unwise).
Besides, why think binary anyway. We should not think “either/or”, but rather “both/and”. Maybe a good way would to be starting with “How” (I fully agree that it is a better opener for a discussion), and move to “Why” later on? Maybe it is even better to ask a longer question in the line of: “What conditions were present and may have contributed?”. It is not as short and snappy as “How” or “Why”, but then, should we not be reluctant to simplify?
Many thanks to Timothy van Goethem, Vincent Steinmetz and Beate Karlsen who helped to shape these reflections. Still, I have to stress that the above opinions and views are my responsibility and not necessarily the truth. I would love to hear yours, discuss, explore and learn!
Todd Conklin bibliography:
Simple Revolutionary Acts - Ideas To Revitalize Yourself And Your Workplace (2004, ISBN 978-0595320653)
Pre-Accident Investigations - An Introduction To Organizational Safety (2012, ISBN 978-1409447825)
Pre-Accident Investigations: Better Questions (2016, ISBN 978-1472486134)
Also published on Linkedin.