To Become a Better Problem-Solver, Try Thinking Like a Toddler

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Photo: Roberto Westbrook/Blend Images/Getty Images

Spend more than a few minutes with a kid of a certain age, and chances are you’ve been on the receiving end of an endless stream of “why.” When you’re young enough, everything is fodder for a line of questioning, no matter how mundane: Why are you eating that? Because I’m hungry. Why are you hungry? Because I skipped breakfast this morning. Why’d you skip breakfast? And so on and so forth. As Science of Us has previously reported, one analysis found that preschoolers ask an average of 76 questions per hour. That’s a lot of why, especially when you consider the fact that most of the time, they don’t even care much about the explanation.

Cute? Sometimes. A little annoying? Yeah, you could say that. But as writer Leah Fessler recently explained in Quartz, adults could stand to take a cue from the toddlers in their lives: Asking “why?” on loop, as it turns out, is a pretty handy problem-solving tool, one pioneered by Toyota executive Taiichi Ohno in the 1950s. His “ask ‘why’ five times” strategy, Fassler explains, was developed to help solve production and mechanical problems, but it can really be applied to just about anything. Consider the example she gives, of a garden-variety work problem:

You just gave a PowerPoint presentation, and it went overtime. Your client had a hard stop, so they didn’t hear your team’s full proposal. Whether with your boss, or afterward on your own time, you begin asking why:

“Why didn’t the client hear our full proposal?” Because I ran out of time.

“Why did you run out of time?” Because I was long-winded when presenting my slides.

“Why were you long-winded?” Because I had not practiced presenting my slides the night before.

“Why hadn’t you practiced?” Because I was tied up with a friend last night, and had other things to get through during the day yesterday.

“Why were you tied up with a friend, and focusing on other projects the day before a client presentation?“

Follow the trail of questions far enough, and eventually you get to the root of the problem — which, in turn, helps you figure out how to stop issues at the source the next time around. In this example, maybe that means getting better control of your schedule, or learning to say no, or working to stop underestimating how long things actually take. An overly curious kid may be kind of exhausting, but a little of their curiosity can make your life a little bit easier in the long run.

To Become a Better Problem-Solver, Think Like a Toddler