How to solve problems with the rules of 5


How much of your day do you spend problem solving?  It could be responding to requests from senior leaders, helping team members work through an issue, or just figuring out where to park in the morning.

If you’re anything like me, it seems like every day is a stream of problems waiting to be solved (or prevented).

Problem solving is the bread and butter of all leaders – it’s what we do and where we shine.  Not only do we tackle problems directly, we are charged with empowering and coaching others to solve continually more challenging problems.

A Leader’s Role in Problem Solving

The easy thing to do, when presented with a problem by someone on our team, is to solve it.  After all, it’s what we do.  However, just because we can solve a problem doesn’t mean we should.

When helping someone else with a problem, problem solving skills may or may not get a workout – depending on whether we have seen a problem like this before and already possess the wherewithal to figure it out.

When we empower our people to solve the problem, however, both of us get development.  We exercise our coaching skills (and our restraint…sometimes we just want to jump in!) and our folks build their problem solving skills.  By enabling others, we raise the capability of us both.

Whether we are solving a problem ourselves, or guiding someone else through the process, there is a quick rule of thumb we can use to make sure we understand and are solving the right problem…the Rules of 5.

Understand the Problem – The 5 ANDs

“The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem.”  Jack Sparrow

We all have a particular lens that we use to view the world around us.  It is shaped by our work, life and people experiences.  As we have new experiences, our lens shifts to account for a changing perspective.

Before we solve a problem, we need to know there is a problem to begin with.  I’ve experienced conversations, that by the time we get to the end, there was no problem at all.  Not only is this frustrating for both parties, but is a costly waste of time.

To avoid this headache, it’s important to be able to articulate the problem up front.  Unfortunately, sometimes our team members (and we) cannot effectively articulate the problem, OR what we perceive to be the problem is not the real problem at all.

To get to the true nature of the problem, leaders must use the first Rule of 5.  It is called the “5 And’s”

At the beginning of the discussion, ask the other person to describe the problem.  When they are done, ask “And?” and they will further elaborate.  When they stop, ask “And?” again.  Repeat the process until you have asked “And?” five times.

A few years ago, a manager asked for some of my time to talk about an issue.  When we met, she told me “John is posting for a new position.”


By the time I was finished asking the 5 And’s, it turns out this would be a benefit to the group, as the work John was doing was changing and he wasn’t interested in learning the new skills necessary to do the job.  His move freed capacity to bring in someone with the skills we were looking for, and John ended up in a job more suited to his interests.

If I had immediately gone into problem solving mode, I would have been frustrated to eventually figure out there wasn’t a problem that needed solving.  Instead, asking the “5 And’s” allowed me to get a better sense of 1.) whether there was an issue and 2.) if there was, the true scope of what was happening.

The “5 And’s” ensure someone considers what’s really going on, whether it’s really a problem, and frame it out appropriately.  It also ensures accountability for solving the problem remains with that individual.  Otherwise, it’s effectively dropping the perceived issue in your lap and making it yours.

Get to Root Cause – The 5 WHYs

The next step once a problem has been identified is to get at root cause.  It is essential to understand the root of an issue before problem solving.  Why?  Because otherwise, we could be solving symptoms while the true driver of the problems remain unchanged.

Let’s imagine for a moment that John’s departure was not going to be a non-event.  That losing him would be detrimental to the team.

We could reason all sorts of possible solutions – from trying to convince him to stay to starting the hiring process for a replacement.  However, we don’t know why he’s leaving.  If we don’t understand that, any solution may fall flat.

Once the problem is understood, leaders must move onto the next Rule of 5 – the “5 Why’s” – to get to root cause.

The conversation may go something like this:

  • “John is leaving.”
  • “Why?”
  • “Because he’s unhappy here.”
  • “Why?”
  • “Because he’s not getting the types of assignments he wants.”
  • “Why?”
  • “Because he doesn’t have the skills needed to do them.”
  • “Why?”
  • “Because we haven’t trained him”
  • “Why?”
  • “Because there is a lot of work to be done and he was assigned to the work that matched his current skills.”

This points to a broader issue – prioritizing team development with work assignments.  If the leader does not get to the root of why John is leaving, others could leave as well, including any replacement.  While replacing him may solve the immediate issue (the symptom), leaving the root cause (lack of development prioritization) unaddressed will create larger long-term issues for the team.

Once you understand the issue, before going into problem solving mode, get a sense of the root cause by asking the “5 Why’s.”  Otherwise, the solution may be temporary.

Framing the Solution – The 5 HOWs

The problem is framed and the root cause is known.  NOW it’s finally time to get at the solution.

This is where most folks want to dive in.  Often before the other steps are taken.  Assuming you’ve reeled them back in and waited to solution, now that patience gets to pay off.

To start solutioning takes just one question “How?”

However, if we stop with just one, we may not be able to anticipate challenges that must be resolved to make the solution a reality.

This is the last of the Rules of 5 – the “5 How’s.”

Thinking back to John and the issue of the development prioritization, a (simplified) conversation might go like this:

  • “How do you want to solve the challenge with John?”
  • “By getting him the training he needs.”
  • “How?”
  • “By shifting some of his work and freeing time to take the training.”
  • “How?”
  • “By redistributing the assignments across the team.”
  • “How?”
  • “By reevaluating the development needs across the team and better matching skills and development opportunities with the work.”
  • “How?”
  • “By analyzing priorities and commitments to customers against the work to determine what work could be slowed or delayed, allowing team members time to learn new skills.”

While this is a simple example, the action of redistributing work is not.  By asking additional “how” questions, it forces the individual to think through challenges.  What if the work cannot be slowed or delayed?

This is where a leader can provide the most valuable mentoring and feedback.  Not in solving the problem, but in helping the individual get to a place where he/she understands what’s standing in their way and where they need the leader’s assistance.


It’s not a leader’s job to solve all the problems of their teams.  If we can help individuals understand the real problem, what is causing it, and what roadblocks may come up, the real value we bring is in helping address those roadblocks.

Additionally, by allowing ownership to remain with the individual, and building their problem-solving abilities, we save our skills for those big nasty problems that need our more direct involvement.


Do you have a technique to help your teams with root cause identification and problem solving?  Please share your thoughts in the comments below.