The Basic Thinking Framework 5W1H

In an earlier post Yin-Yang Thinking Framework – Innovative and Critical, I covered the Chinese key thinking frame work of Yin and Yang. There is a more fundamental thinking framework than the Yin-Yang Framework and that is the popular 5W1H making up of Who, Why, What, Where, When and How.

Understanding of A Thing

If we claim we understand something fully, we must be able to provide answers to the 6 questions. Failing which, we must admit we don’t understand it well enough. This 6 Questions guide us as to where to search for the answer.

Which of the 5W1H should we cover first?

In the study of taxonomy, the classification of things, we will come across the work of Ranganathan’s PMEST method of classifying all things:

  1. Personality—what the thing is primarily “about.”
    1. This is considered the “main facet.”
    2. To the 5W1H thinking, this is the Who & Why giving rise to the identity of the thing.
  2. Matter—the material of the object … What
  3. Energy—the processes or activities that take place in relation to the object … How
  4. Space—where the object happens or exists …Where
  5. Time—when the object occurs… When

(note: some people have 5W2H, with the additional ‘H’ to stand for How Many.
How Many is not related to How to make it. How Many relates to the Size and should be included in What. But, if you like to be clearer and make sure size is an important attribute of What, adding the How Many is fine too)

The order is then Who-Why, What, How, Where and When.

It is probably a good order to follow. Name the thing first, describe it, know how it works, find out where does it exist and when it exist. It there a life cycle over time?

The identity of the thing, the purpose, determines the behavior of the thing. If we know the purpose, we can predict its behavior.

Great thinkers and Innovations Begin with keen Observation
We know that different people in the same situation will have different point of views. But there are people who see more things than others. The experts can tell more than the lay people. But lay people become experts through training. A good business man see opportunities in his visits that are often missed by the lay people. The 5W1H provides the framework for helping to observe well.

Purpose is Key
Observation can tell us the Who, What, Where and When but is not able to tell us the Why. This is the restriction of Science – Science can’t tell why because Science is by observations.  To know why, we must probe, guess and ask. Even then, the true correct answer lies in the creator or maker of the things.

Lessons from Apple iPod (or iphone and ipad etc for that matter).
When apple entered the mp3 player market, they were very late and yet ipod made the waves and the profits. Why was that so? The answer lies in the order of the 5W1H. mp3 makers make mp3 per se. Apple has a higher purpose(Why) of fulfilling the dreams of many, of paying $1 for the song you like instead of $20 for additional 16-20 songs that you don’t but forced to do it because it was the economy of the CDs then. Apple saw a higher purpose and defined the What needed of good-songs, itunes of song selection-purchase-download, the mp3 for playing the song and the how of digital copy protection, the acquiring of technology and know-how and the subcontracting of work, to ensure the making and distribution of the ipod in where and at the right time(when).

Apply repeat the same formula in iphone. iPhone is not just a phone just as much as ipod is not just a mp3 player. iPhone is a social connection device with mobility through the internet. Nokia and other move up from plain phone to PDA-PIM smart phone. Apple had done more by connecting to the cloud with its branded ease of use and wow-styling experience. Apple’s competitors are just competing on the What and How and are missing the blue-ocean profitable market of Why.

Let summarize here, 5W1H enables us to know a subject matter better and Why is the driving force among the 6. Pay attention, even though it is most difficult from observations, to the WHY – the identity and purpose of the thing.

From A Thing to a System of Things in a Context
Is 5W1H sufficient? My answer is not completely, depending on what is your thing. It is important to see your thing, your subject of study, as a system interacting with elements in a Context or the Environment. There are key things to watch out for:

  • System has a purpose – identity
  • System has sub-components working in sync to achieve the system’s purpose. (sub-optimization is bad. Keeping the flow and harmony is key. — lean methodology)
  • System interact with the elements in the Context.
  • System boundary and System Context interaction are key too. (Man-Machine Interface is a key winning formula for Apple).
  • System must FIT the context in which it exists to have optimum.

So, ipod is just a subsystem in the Apple’s system of personalized musics on the go. iPhone is just a subsystem of the Apple’s system of social experience through connecting to the Clouds computing. Breadtalk don’t just sell bread and Starbuck don’ts just sell coffee. To beat Apple, there need to be a higher dream. Androids (Google, HTC, Motorola, Samsung …), Nokia, Microsoft and the rest are just playing in the path that Apple has walked. What is, or may, why is iPad? What is your innovation about?

These System Thinking, 5W1H and the Yin-Yang thinking framework are the foundational parts of my BVITS innovation thinking method. Check it out to improve your thinking and innovative skills.

BVOTECH Copyrighted 2011

2 thoughts on “The Basic Thinking Framework 5W1H

  1. Even for the physicist, the description in plain language will be a criterion of the degree of understanding that has been reached. Werner Heisenberg (Nobel Prize winner in physics)

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