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Why? Yes, and…

By Renee Obrecht-Como, Program Operations Director — Health and Nutrition

“Why?” It’s such a deceptively simple question. When uttered over and over by a three-year-old trying to understand their world, it’s also a question that can wear down even the most patient parent, grandparent, or aunt (like me). The call-and-response of “why… because” sometimes ends with an adult saying, “because I said so.” Sound familiar?

Last week, a group of Family Development administrators participated in a training that included a strategy called The 5 Whys. The 5 Whys strategy illustrates the power of the classic repetitive questioning technique used by three-year-olds.

The 5 Whys is used as a way to get at root causes of a dilemma — by asking “why?” at least five times, you’re more likely to uncover the root causes. Our trainer, Kim Boyce (retired from Extension after a career in Community Vitality and Field Operations), gave the example of the Jefferson Memorial.

Jefferson Memorial at night

The dilemma was that the Jefferson Memorial was disintegrating. By asking “why?” over and over, it became clear that 1) the memorial was disintegrating due to 2) harsh chemicals in a cleaning solution used to clean bird droppings because 3) birds were feasting on the large number spiders at the monument; 4) spiders were numerous because they were feasting on midges, insects that hatched from the water around the monument, and 5) the midges and other insects were attracted by the lights that illuminated the monument most of the night. The solution ended up being to reduce the amount of time the lights were turned on, which in turn resulted in fewer insects, spiders, bird droppings, cleaning, and disintegration.

It was then I realized that the 5 Whys is really what three-year-olds are implementing. They keep asking “why?” until they get an answer that satisfies them — a root cause — or an exasperated “because I said so!”

In our adult contexts, “because that’s the way things are” is the equivalent of “because I said so.” As program operations director in Health and Nutrition, I often help people navigate University bureaucracy. The process of questioning usually ends with a University policy, the bureaucratic equivalent of “because that’s the way things are” (i.e., because that’s what the policy says).

In practical terms, the policy becomes the root cause of a dilemma.

A whole library of potential root causes, available at

After the training, I pondered the frustration we’ve all felt in the face of "because that’s the way things are." I then remembered the “yes, and...” technique, one the Theater of Public Policy demonstrated at last year's Health and Nutrition event last year.
Responding with “yes, and...” (rather than “no” or “yes, but...”) continues to engage another person and keeps the conversation going. "Yes, and..." opens up possibilities.

It occurred to me that once we reach a root cause, when continuing to ask “why?” is no longer fruitful, moving to “yes, and...” is the next avenue to follow. For example, there’s a University travel policy designed to address IRS rules and regulations about mileage and other business travel costs.

  • Yes, we have to comply with the policy, and how can we do so in the most efficient way possible that respects people’s time and travel costs?  
  • Yes, we have to comply with the policy, and how might a Health and Nutrition or SNAP-Ed mileage log be updated to make compliance simple?

Where do you face dilemmas or challenges? Try picking one. Start by asking “why?” followed by “yes, and...” Stir and repeat. Again. Again. And again.
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