Project Practitioners > Popping the Why Stack

Popping the Why Stack

By Kent McDonald

If you ever wanted to test an adult's true understanding of how things work, put them in a long car ride to kindergarten with a five year old.

"Dad, why is the sky blue?"

"Because of the sunlight hitting the atmosphere."


"Because as light hits the atmosphere, it starts to hit particles in the air and bounce around, causing us to see blue..."


And so on until the five year old gets distracted and asks a different string of questions, or the adult runs to the limit of their understanding and tries desperately to change the subject.

What the five year old is doing, aside from annoying the adult and making them question their true understanding of life, the universe, and everything, is called Popping The Why Stack (a phrase I originally heard from Chris Matts, but he may very well claim he had heard it from someone else who I can't remember at the moment.). She is continuously asking “why” to get to a deeper understanding of the root cause of some phenomenon (the sky being blue). As another example that Kindergarten is in fact the most important grade in US Primary school (everything I needed to know to do “x” I learned in Kindergarten) Popping the Why Stack can also be used to get at the root cause of a problem, or in the case of project requirements can get you to whether a particular requirement is adding value to the organization.

Here's how that bit works. You have a requirement that asks for some sort of output, we'll call it a deliverable, you ask the requester “why do you need this” and then enter into a conversation similar to the one above with the five year old where you pop the why stack until you reach some understanding of how that deliverable delivers value through increasing revenue, protecting revenue, reducing costs in alignment with the strategy of the organization. (which I'm pretty sure Chris Matts did originate, although he may have collaborated with someone named Dan North on that one). This exercise will help you gather information to guide prioritizing and sequencing requirements, as well as gaining a better understanding of why you are doing the project overall.

Try popping the why stack the next time you are delving into project requirements or have a problem to solve. Hopefully you don't end up annoying your stakeholders in the process, one way you know if you are getting close is if you get an answer to one of your why questions that I occasionally use with my five year old “Because I said so!”

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