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Use 'Nine Whys' to discover the purpose of your team

February 6, 2018

Liberating Structures are 33 microstructures that allow you to unleash and involve everyone in a group – from extroverted to introverted and from leaders to followers. In this series of posts, we show how Liberating Structures can be used to spice up your Scrum Events. Move away from the stickies and the whiteboards for a moment, and explore these novel facilitation techniques. If you’d like to experience Liberating Structures first-hand, make sure to join one of the ‘immersion workshops’ that are taking place in March 2018.

Many people know the Five Whys from the Toyota Production System and incorrectly assume that the Liberating Structure Nine Whys is the same with a few extra Whys thrown in. While the Five Whys are used to trace a defect back to a faulty process Nine Whys helps teams identify their purpose.

A purpose is the main reason for working together, “an inexhaustible reason for a group to exist”. As such it is absolutely fundamental for collaboration, yet usually opaque or forgotten. A clear purpose helps teams align toward a shared goal and as a result gives meaning to all Scrum events.

In this post, we’ll share examples of how we’ve applied this structure within our Scrum training and coaching engagements.

Uses in Scrum and workshops

We have used Nine Whys for a number of applications in (and outside) Scrum:

  • For Scrum teams as part of a team liftoff to identify the deepest reason for working together;
  • For product kick-offs to clarify and communicate why the product should exist;
  • As part of strategy and roadmapping initiatives to first clarify purpose and then actual goals;
  • For Agile transition teams to shape the direction and intention of the change;

Steps to use this Liberating Structure

  1. Ask participants to get in pairs. Invite them to look at their current activities and slowly dig deeper to reveal the deepest reason for the group to work together. To get this started, participants will have to decide who is going to be the interviewer and who’s going to be the interviewee in the first round.
  2. The interviewer then asks the interviewee to make a short list of the most important things they do in their daily work to help the team make progress. This can include things like “Making the UI of product xy more accessible,” “setting up Docker containers,” or “fixing broken laptops.” 1 minute
  3. The interviewer then helps the interviewee find a deeper purpose behind these activities by repeatedly asking questions with why like “Why is that important to you?”, “Why is that important to our customers?” and “Why is it important to our society?” The participants switch roles after five minutes.
  4. The pairs get into groups of four and share their insights for five minutes.
  5. The whole group shares their discoveries. Participants pay attention to an emerging group purpose. 

There is often significant overlap between the individual purposes that emerge. Invite the group to craft a purpose statement that begins with “We exist to start…” or “We exist to stop…” if possible. The most important part, however, is that the group feels like their statement rings true and creates excitement.

A story from the trenches

A team in a major logistics company felt like they were lacking direction and meaning. Only writing one part of an application used for organizing shipments didn't feel particularly significant. We used Nine Whys and a team member shared a story he called “My son's bicycle”. He told us how he had ordered a new bicycle for his son from overseas. After a long waiting period, he received a letter telling him to pick up the parcel at the harbor. His son jumped up and down and couldn't contain his excitement. He kept telling his father what cool things he would do with his new bike during the drive there. When they arrived the team member snuck a peek at the clerk's monitor and saw that she was using a piece of software he had written himself. He told his son and his eyes went wide. He was so impressed that his dad helped him get his new bike across the ocean into his hands.

The other team members sat in stunned silence. After a while some admitted that they had never seen it that way, resorting to crude cynicism about their meaningless jobs instead. The team realized that they often didn't get to see the fruit of their labors but that they worked together to help people around the world get things they really needed.

Stringing together with other Liberating Structures

  • Nine Whys is a great start for a whole Purpose to Practice session. This Liberating Structure is going to help you decide what principles you must follow, whom to include, what structure to choose and what practices to follow in order to make your purpose come to life.
  • Use Wicked Questions to identify the hidden paradoxical challenges associated with your purpose.
  • Use Appreciate Interviews to share a success story and then segue into Nine Whys, using the story as the starting point.


  • Traditional organizational design unconsciously keeps teams separated from a true purpose. Only the higher-ups really know why something is being done. We've worked with teams where looking for a deep purpose became frustrating as it only highlighted that they were merely a cog in the machine. Using Nine Whys in this scenario can help change initiatives get started (getting teams on a quest for a true purpose) or it can destroy morale. If you fear that might happen, maybe try a more traditional mission statement instead.
  • The purpose has several layers. You can always go deeper or more shallow. You have found the right level when the purpose statement feels gripping, exciting and ambitious.
  • A purpose is never truly final. It's often a good idea to take a purpose statement for a “test drive”, see if it rings true in daily life and then sharpen it later on. Beautiful and deep discussions will emerge!


In this article, we’ve shared examples of how we've applied Nine Whys within our Scrum training and coaching engagements. We’re always happy to hear your experiences or hear your suggestions. If you’d like to know more about Liberating Structures or experience a large number of them first-hand, sign-up for one of the workshops that are taking place throughout Europe in March 2018. They will be facilitated by co-inventor Keith McCandless and pioneer Fisher Qua.

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