Most of us do it wrong.
The problem I’m about to explain happens everywhere in our lives, in our private lives, in our professional lives, in our relationships, in every aspect of our lives. So, please stick with me even if the software development example doesn’t resonate with you.
A computer programmer comes against a nasty bug. They immediately start writing dozens of lines of code to fix the bug. They use the trial and error method and add new code to the program until they cannot reproduce the error.
Another computer programmer comes against the same bug. They go into the code and spend hours to find the root cause of the bug. Once they find the line that caused the bug, they change that line and the bug is solved.
Now, which one is the better approach? Using trial and error, adding and subtracting random lines of code? Or spending hours on finding the root cause of the error and changing a single line to fix it?
Trial and Error
The trial and error approach is the way of the inexperienced programmer. It means that you don’t know what you are doing. In that case, you can gain some insights on how the program works by trial and error.
When you use the trial and error approach and add and remove random lines to the code, you are making the code base unstable, harder to maintain. You are likely introducing more errors than you solve. And most probably, you are only sweeping the errors under the rug.
By sweeping the errors under the rug, you seem to have done a good job in the short term, but in the long term, you are creating greater problems, because those errors will eventually show up and they will be much harder to find and solve.
Finding the Root Cause
Finding the root cause of a problem is the way of the experienced programmer. The experienced programmer knows that without finding the root cause, you are not solving any problem at all. It takes patience, concentration and it’s a very frustrating process sometimes.
You might search for a line that is causing the problem among tens of thousands of lines of code. It’s like searching for the needle in a haystack. But once you find the needle in the haystack, then you know that you have solved a serious problem.
Which surgeon do you prefer to operate on your body? The one that uses the trial and error approach? Or the one that looks for the root cause and only fixes that one?
Your Life Isn’t Any Different.
Most of the time, we are trying to find quick fixes to our problems using the trial and error approach.
- Quick fixes take longer to implement.
- They are more expensive at the end.
- They make our lives unstable.
- They create more and greater problems down the road.
“The solutions of yesterday are the problems of today.”
Quick fixes are knee jerk reactions to the problems at hand. They don’t solve the problem. They only postpone the problem at best and cause disasters at worst. Why do we use them? Because it’s human nature to react with knee jerk reactions to every perceived problem.
How to Find the Root Cause of a Problem
Finding the root cause of a problem is cheaper, faster, and more effective in the long run.
The majority of people think that quick fixes are quick, cheap, and effective. Nothing can be further from the truth. This is just mental laziness and inexperience manifesting itself. Quick fixes result only in more and greater problems in the long run.
If finding the root cause of a problem is the only way to solve a problem, how do we find the root cause of a problem?
The 5 Whys Technique
The solution is a method called the 5 Whys Technique. You formulate the problem as a why question and look for an answer. Once you find an answer, you formulate the answer as a why question. You repeat these two steps five times. By the fifth why, you have a decent chance of finding the root cause of your problem.
Once you find the root cause or causes, the solution is relatively easy to find. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is easy to implement. Here’s an example.
- Why do I not perform well at work?
- Because I can’t concentrate.
- Why can I not concentrate?
- Because my partner is texting me all the time.
- Why does my partner text me all the time.
- Because I don’t pay much attention to them.
- Why don’t I pay much attention to my partner?
- Because I don’t have much time to spend together with them.
- Why don’t I have much time to spend together with my spouse?
- Because I’m addicted to online gaming.
In this fictional example, we find the root cause after asking five whys. The solution is simple, quit online gaming. Is it easy to implement? Probably, not.
Sometimes, you might come up with multiple reasons for a why question. In that case, you have to complete the process for each branch. This way, you might end up with hundreds of reasons.
Sometimes, you might come up with the root cause after the first why. Sometimes, you might have to dig deeper than five whys to find the root cause.
Sometimes, you end up with circular reasons. For example, you can’t sleep well, because you drink too much coffee and you drink too much coffee, because you are sleepy during the day.
There’s another pitfall with the 5 Whys Technique. Sometimes, you might end up analyzing the problem over and over in order to find the root cause. Or you might branch endlessly, coming up with dozens of answers to each why question. This is just an illusion and it is analysis paralysis.
In reality, you know deep down what the major issue is on each level. By branching endlessly or going too many levels deeper, you are only avoiding the problem. You are procrastinating and you don’t want to face the reality. Analysis paralysis is your way of coping with the reality of your situation.
The 5 Whys Technique results in finding the root cause fairly quickly. The solution to that root cause is also fairly obvious.
If you can’t find the root cause and see the obvious solution, take a hard look at the reality of the situation that you are in. Face the reality of your situation completely and make the decisions that need to be made.
Which actions are you avoiding? Maybe the solution is way outside of your comfort zone. If that is the case, admit it and work your way towards extending your comfort zone, develop the necessary skill sets, make a plan, and execute your plan.
The 5 Whys Technique exposes multiple problems on multiple levels. By finding the root cause of a problem and solving it, we solve multiple problems on multiple levels. In the example above, performance at work, concentration, relationships issues, and time management issues.
Apply the 5 Whys Technique to a problem that you face right now. Try to find the root cause of the problem and come up with a solution to the root cause. Let me know how the technique worked out for you!
Software developer with a Ph.D. and 15 years of experience. I write daily on personal development and life lessons. Sign up to my email newsletter to receive a weekly roundup of my latest posts.