Why, Oh Why?


For want of a nail the shoe was lost.For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the message was lost. For want of a message the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

This old proverb, dating back to the 1300s, is a brilliant example of the butterfly effect: the entwinement of cause and effect as one small action flutters across numerous consequences to an unforeseen and, in this case, monumental outcome.

It’s fair to say such an outcome could not have been forecast. After all, who would have thought a missing nail was the beginning of the end?

It really is only in hindsight that we can trace our way back to the root cause. And so by flipping the proverb and asking the question ‘why?’ we discover an excellent method of problem solving.

Why did we loose the Kingdom? Because we lost the battle.

Why did we lose the battle? Because we didn’t receive a crucial message.

… And why was the horse missing a shoe? Because we ran out of nails.

It is easy to ask ‘why’ the first time. After all, the answer is obviously in front of us: the lost battle caused the downfall of the kingdom. Isn’t that enough?

Not necessarily. It is much more difficult to repeatedly ask ‘why’, each time delving deeper and peeling back the layers to reveal the actual root cause.

The thread of questioning in our example also reminds us of the importance to involve others: from king to blacksmith, those people with the experiences and the answers.

So, the next time you hear someone say ‘ticket sales are down because [fill in the blank]’, ask why. And ask again. And then ask again. The rule of thumb is that you will ask ‘why’ five times before landing on the real reason.

It’s not easy, but then do you want to lose your kingdom just because you didn’t want to ask five simple questions?