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Excuses, Reasons, and The 5 Why’s

I’ve been worrying this Canadian Thanksgiving long weekend about a few associations that I am a member of or affiliated with.  I’ve seen a malaise hit some of them and it may be because of the overall pandemic, burnout, or just poor leadership processes.   I’m not sure what the exact cause is and it’s probably multi-dimensional.  I do think that I am solutions-oriented.  When I see these issues in my consulting work, I work with the Board or CEO to re-frame their perspectives so as to more clearly see a path forward that isn’t rooted in blame, defensiveness, sadness, loss of past glories, or some such.

At the base of these issues is the difference between excuses and reasons.  These words are triggers for my personal leadership philosophy that nothing good can be gained from getting mired in excuses.  The definition of ‘excuse’ that I am using here is when we “attempt to lessen the blame attaching to (a fault or offense); seek to defend or justify.”  Examples that I’ve seen lately are Board members and staff challenging individual members or groups of senior members for asking tough questions and, then, immediately widely blaming the members for being ‘impolite’ and not ‘trusting’ the Board and staff leadership. (It’s always ironic when associations of information professionals stonewall requests for information or answers!)  This kind of defensiveness is a symptom or deeper problems when Boards are asked to listen to members, respond effectively to questions, or admit when they have failed to uphold the values and policies of the membership organization in principle, spirit or the law.

What’s the cure?

The cure is engaging in a process where excuses are identified and not allowed to fester as touch-stones for inaction.  The best start to list all of the excuses and carefully reframe them as reasons to be addressed with strategies and focus.

What is a reason?

As a word-based profession, we do know the difference between excuses and reasons.  Let’s consider these definitions of reason, reasons, and reasoning.

  • a cause, explanation, or justification for an action or event.
  • the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic.
  • the ability of a healthy mind to think and make judgments, especially based on practical facts.

Sadly, many leadership groups stop the process too soon.  A symptom of this is when people become judgmental instead of using judgment as a launching pad for addressing the issue at hand.  People get mired in the identification of the ‘problem’ and often blame the questioner or position them as ‘disruptive’.  Until we fairly evaluate the reasons for an issue, we remain mired in the excuse cyclone.  By identifying the list of candidates of real reasons, we can develop strategies to address them – often quickly.  One symptom of an excuse is that Boards and Management Teams will find themselves circling back to the excuse without progressing to the potential solutions and finding the data, information, relationships, tactics, and strategies to engage in.  Hence the need for a good process as well as a facilitator to ask the tough questions and force the achievement of appropriate milestones.

We need to learn that when we study things to death, that death was not our original goal.  We must prefer informed action, over endless debate and study.

I have found that this ‘magic’ can be achieved with the Five Why’s facilitation technique.

“Five whys (or 5 whys) is an iterative interrogative technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem.[1] The primary goal of the technique is to determine the root cause of a defect or problem by repeating the question “Why?”. Each answer forms the basis of the next question. The “five” in the name derives from an anecdotal observation on the number of iterations needed to resolve the problem.

Not all problems have a single root cause. If one wishes to uncover multiple root causes, the method must be repeated asking a different sequence of questions each time.

The method provides no hard and fast rules about what lines of questions to explore, or how long to continue the search for additional root causes. Thus, even when the method is closely followed, the outcome still depends upon the knowledge and persistence of the people involved.”

Here is an example via Wikipedia.

“An example of a problem is: The vehicle will not start.

  1. Why? – The battery is dead. (First why)
  2. Why? – The alternator is not functioning. (Second why)
  3. Why? – The alternator belt has broken. (Third why)
  4. Why? – The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (Fourth why)
  5. Why? – The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (Fifth why, a root cause)[2]

The questioning for this example could be taken further to a sixth, seventh, or higher level, but five iterations of asking why is generally sufficient to get to a root cause.[3]”

So now we need to look at problems that need addressing for ensuring our Associations’ sustainability.

Framed as ‘Excuses’, the key issues may include:

  • We’re in a pandemic.
  • We can’t meet in person.
  • We have a lot of retiring members.
  • We aren’t attracting new graduates.
  • We aren’t big enough to generate sponsorships, ads, or donations.
  • etc.

Framed as ‘reasons’ for a Five Why’s exercise, we can address these factual issues.

  1. Our membership is in steep decline.
  2. The conference revenue is not contributing as in the past.
  3. Our operational expenses exceed our revenue.
  4. Our financial reserves are being used up.

So, I suggest that our Associations engage in from Five Why’s processes to identify the absolute core problems to address with a sense of urgency.

I’ll start with number “1: Our Membership is in steep decline.”

Why: Members are not renewing their memberships. (Duh!)

Why: They don’t see value in the investment.

Why: We’ve made cuts to our portfolio of services, and have remained too traditional t0 attract next generation information professionals who may not be employed in traditional settings.  Do we have blinkers on about the expanded roles of our potential members?

Why: We have done some great things but our sales, marketing, and communications muscles are weak.  We haven’t communicated or truly committed to the changes to our professional development, networking, and services/resources portfolio.

Why: We don’t really understand our members’ real needs in this era.  Can we re-focus on a new and clear value proposition from the members’ (not the association’s POV)?  Can we expand the types of members we target? Do we need to re-vamp out revenue streams?

Now what research, tactics, and decisions do we need to make . . . to execute now.

Several of my associations need to engage in this exercise and do the due diligence to truly focus – on an urgent and emergency basis – on a very limited range of strategies and tactics to achieve renewed sustainability.  It will take time, transparency, openness, and listening.  There’s an opportunity to reframe the Board and administrative culture to have bias towards visible action.

Defensiveness just gets in the way.  Lead, really lead.



Posted on: October 12, 2021, 6:55 am Category: Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Stephen, thank you for the post. Allow me to offer this post as a “companion.” In every organization, trust is important. Some organization need to ensure that they are building the trust they need in order to make the changes that need to be made.