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Team’s collaborate on Sherlock Holmes & the Internet of Things an immersive storytelling prototype by the Columbia DSL

TOOL BOX: 5x Why — the power of a single question

This is the first in a series of posts sharing exercises and methods that we’ll be utilizing during the From the Futures initiative.

Origins of 5x Why

There is something so simple, yet powerful about 5x Why. The exercise was originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda and used within the Toyota Motor Corporation as a way to examine cause-and-effect through an iterative interrogative technique.

In Toyoda’s version you start with a problem statement and then ask why five times. The following example is from wikipedia:

The vehicle will not start. (the problem)

Why? — The battery is dead. (First why)

Why? — The alternator is not functioning. (Second why)

Why? — The alternator belt has broken. (Third why)

Why? — The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (Fourth why)

Why? — The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (Fifth why, a root cause)

A slight variation

The following is a slight variation on Toyoda’s technique that has two people interviewing each other, asking the same question five times in a row.

TYPE OF EXERCISE: Ice Breaker, Active Listening, Empathic and Opening Data Point


TIME NEEDED: 10 to 15 minutes (7:30 minutes for exercise and 3 to 5 minutes for debrief)


  • One large 5x8, unlined index card for each participant
  • A marker or pen for each participant
Columbia DSL & Refinery29 Empathy Lab session on the future of the entertainment industry


Can everyone please take an index card and pen?

Now find someone you don’t know.

Okay, can I have your attention please ? We’re going to do a simple exercise called 5x Why.

You’ll take turns interviewing each other, being the interviewer and the interviewee.

There is only a single question which I’ll give you in a moment.

This is important. You will ask the same question 5 x in a row to your partner and then switch.

When you are interviewing your partner, please use the card to jot down notes on things you find interesting. Consider what stands out to you and then write down a note. You don’t have to write everything the person is saying.

This exercise will take about seven and half minutes. I’ll let you know when we are halfway through so you can switch if you haven’t yet.

Please resist the temptation to ask follow up questions. Stick to the single question and make sure to take notes.

Before I give you the question, does anyone need clarification?

(You may get questions such as “Do I have to answer it the same way every time?” For this we encourage participants to be creative and have fun. Or you might get “Do we take turns? Do I ask it once and then my partner asks it back to me?” To which we say, make sure to ask the question five times to your partner prior to switching.)

So here is the question… (example “Why did you come here today?”)

Columbia DSL & Refinery29 Empathy Lab session on the future of the entertainment industry

Time starts now

We’re half way through, so please make sure to switch if you haven’t.

(Depending on size of the group you may need to be flexible with the time. Read the room and when in doubt ask those who have finished to raise their hands.)

Wrap out

“Thank you for participating in the 5x why exercise. I’m wondering if anyone would like to share what the experience was like? What did you feel while you where doing it? Any insights on the experience?”

“Thanks for sharing. 5x Why is an active listening exercise. Often when people ask each other questions, the asker is already thinking of what they may ask next. Having one single question that you ask five times removes the temptation to ask follow ups and encourages askers to be active listeners as well. 5x Why is also designed to be an empathic exercise that helps you to meet and connect with someone new. Finally, it’s a wonderful way to collect a valuable data point at the start of a class, event or meeting.”

Feel free to use 5x Why and remix it. If you do we’d love to hear how you use it.


The Columbia University School of the Arts’ Digital Storytelling Lab (aka Columbia DSL) designs stories for the 21st Century. We build on a diverse range of creative and research practices originating in fields from the arts, humanities and technology. But we never lose sight of the power of a good story. Technology, as a creative partner, has always shaped the ways in which stories are found and told. In the 21st Century, for example, the mass democratization of creative tools — code, data and algorithms — have changed the relationship between creator and audience. The Columbia DSL, therefore, is a place of speculation, of creativity, and of collaboration between students and faculty from across the University. New stories are told here in new and unexpected ways.

Join Columbia faculty and industry innovators as we explore the current and future landscape of digital storytelling.

For more information on upcoming Columbia DSL programs, prototypes and labs make sure to sign up for our newsletter. Plus if you’re interested in connecting with other storytellers, game designers, hackers, makers, educators and fans of emerging technology we’ve started a Columbia DSL community. Finally if you like to partner with us we’re always up for a good collaboration!

 by the author.



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lance weiler

lance weiler

Storyteller working with Code - Founding member & Director of the Columbia University Digital Storytelling Lab - curates @creativemachines