Daily Archives: July 12, 2011

The 6ws – what are the right questions?

I’ve been thinking about the project process recently. If we ask the wrong questions, we get the wrong answers, so what are the right questions?

How often do we check – is the right problem being solved? Do we know enough about the problem to solve it well?

I’ve recently read Gamestorming – an awesome book of exercises to fire your creative juices. Similarly, I’ve found Dan Roam’s ‘The back of the napkin‘ inspiring.

Both books include an exercise ‘The 6Ws’ which I think should be applied in the initial phase of any new business project or proposal.

What are The 6Ws ?

The 6Ws are: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. For a given goal, each of these ‘W’s is the starting word of a question. Crucially, questions created for each of these W’s cannot be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Investigation of these questions leads to a better understanding of the goal, and the issues surrounding it.

Example problem: The carrot shop.

Suppose we have a new problem to solve, for example a shop sells carrots and asks us ‘How can we sell more carrots?’.

By asking questions beginning with one of the 6 Ws we can start to explore the problem. Is this the right question?

The below list took me 5 minutes to produce. By working quickly, we can focus on what the obvious questions are and hopefully therefore the important questions as well.

Carrot Shop: How can we sell more carrots?

Is this the right question? Let’s apply the 6Ws and find out:

Who visits the shop?
Who works in the shop?
Who delivers the carrots?
Who grows the carrots?
Who buys carrots?
Who could buy carrots that currently doesn’t?
What are the features of a carrot?
What types of carrot do we sell?
What types of carrot can be grown?
What do people use a carrot for?
When do carrots grow?
When do carrots get planted?
When do people buy carrots?
When do we receive the carrots?
When do we sell the carrots?
Where are the carrots grown?
Where are the carrots stored?
Why do buyers buy carrots?
Why do we want to sell more carrots?
How do carrots get grown?
How do carrots get prepared?
How do carrots get used?
How are carrots presented for sale?
How are carrots packaged?
I think the quality of business thinking about a new product or feature could be greatly improved by applying the 6ws at the earliest possible stage of a project. I suggest the 6Ws should be applied at the start of a new feature exploration, and before any user stories.

Just answering the questions raised forces the business to think critically about what the problem is they are trying to solve. Having asked these questions, does the problem still look like it is the best one to solve? Or does it suggest new, better opportunities?

Is ‘How can we sell more carrots?’ the correct question? In the Why section of the above, we ask ‘Why do we want to sell more carrots?’. By asking this basic question, we might well get the answer ‘to make more profit for the store’. So, perhaps a better question would be ‘We are a shop that sells carrots. How can we make more profit?’. Again, the 6Ws now suggest lots of ways to answer this new question.

As an example ‘What is a carrot?’ might be answered by ‘it is orange’ ‘it is a vegetable’ ‘it is a food used in cooking’ ‘it is a prop used at christmas to make a snowman’ ‘it is food for a pet’. So, new product opportunities – can we sell other vegetables? can we use or sell carrot recipes in store? Should we promote it at christmas as a thing to use in your snowman? Can we sell to pet owners?

Why I like the 6 Ws

  • Its a framework that is old

There are records of this framework being used since 1st Century BC in Greece. Which suggests to me it has some value, if the framework has survived for this length of time.

  • It feels like a solid set of lenses with which to review a stated goal
  • It is as flexible or rigid as you need it to be

If your organisation, or a part of it, needs to ask specific questions, you can use the 6Ws to define those questions.

If you’re exploring a fuzzy goal, then you can start with each of the 6Ws. Given a particular W, what are the useful and interesting questions?

  • Its useful when being strategic or tactical.

If you apply it to a tactical goal, it works, or you can apply it to define strategies.

A general set of the 6Ws for a project might be:

Who is going to do the work?
What are the roles and responsibilities of the people involved?
What does success look like?
What work is required, to achieve the project goals?
What does this project depend on?
When will the work be done?
Where will the work be done?
Why are we doing the project?
How are we going to do the project?
How can we measure success?
How does this project fit with our strategic objectives?
I’ve seen these questions on every project I’ve taken part in, but some of the projects that have had problems have not had clearly defined answers to these questions.

  • It can be easily understood and applied by teams with a variety of disciplines.
  • It can be managed.

If the process of the 6Ws results in too many questions, a manager can prioritise the questions.

The most exciting reason for applying the 6Ws:

Using the 6W framework leads to better, and faster, understanding of the issues involved to achieve a goal.

A well defined goal should be able to answer questions for each of the 6W lenses. Once a goal is well defined, a clear supporting document – for example writing a creative brief, or a strategy document, or defining business objectives, a project plan, or clear user stories and acceptance criteria becomes much easier.