5W1H – Uncovering Useful Information

How do you approach problems?

Whenever I get stuck on any kind of problem, typically my first thought is “Cup of tea?” – and actually there is a really neat and direct way to start examining the problem and figuring it out.

Whenever we start to think about problems we are often thinking about EFFECTS: we see symptoms, but we may not know what the root cause is. It may be that when we come to solve a problem that if we can treat the symptoms, that will be enough; more often though, we need to address those root causes if we are to have some lasting solution.

We see a similar situation if our problem is more along the lines of not knowing what the next step is in a process or piece of research. How many times have you sat down to do something but not known what to do? How many times have you wondered what you should do next but just gone blank?

Above all other acronyms, mnemonics and mental shortcuts, 5W1H is the thing for you.

Is that even an acronym?

You may have come across 5W1H as Six Honest Serving Men: they’re the proto-questions that all others follow from: Why, What, When, Where, Who and How. If you have a problem and don’t know where to begin, ask yourself:

  • Why is this a problem?
  • What is causing it? (or what might be causing it?)
  • When is this a problem? (only sometimes or always?)
  • Where is this a problem? (is it something that only effects in one place, or type of place, or everywhere)?
  • Who is this a problem for? (what are their needs?)
  • How is this a problem? (what are the effects?)

If you ask those six questions, the result is that information is no longer bound up in the problem: it has been broken up. You have discrete pieces rather than a whole. What’s the next step? You might ask yourself:

  • Why am I doing this?
  • What needs to be accomplished?
  • When does this need to be done by?
  • Where does it need to be done?
  • Who will this be important for?
  • How are you going to get it done?

The last question may seem odd, but in effect it summarises and builds on the 5Ws: you’re asking these questions in order to find out how to do something. Having answered those other questions first, you are now closer to where you need to be.

In research, a tremendous amount of focus is set on getting answers, of course – but those answers have to start from questions. When you focus solely on the answer, the end point, you lose sight of the start. A question is a start. When you find yourself incredibly stuck, start asking questions – and watch as the Six Honest Serving Men help to unstick you.

Thanks for reading!

Nathan (@DrRyder and @VivaSurvivors)

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