I struggle training interns who may know how to do something — in my case, use a 3D modeling program — but don’t understand why they are doing it. Any advice?

Andy: Oh man. I bet “struggle” is putting it mildly. Getting anyone to understand the why behind what they’re doing is some next-level coaching, let alone a crew of interns who are probably trying their best to show how much they don’t need hand-holding.

Emma: They know some of the how and none of the why simply because they haven’t learned the why yet. No one has taught them, at least not in a way with real-world application, or in a way that has become part of their mental hardwiring. Which makes sense — they’re interns!

Andy: Enter: you. Your task is to fill in that why, which is just another way of saying “develop their critical thinking.”

Emma: Lol, that’s all. Go ahead and solve global warming while you’re at it.

Andy: It’s such a crazy hard thing to do! But it’s also crucial, especially if any of these interns are going to stick around and become your coworkers or your direct reports.

Emma: I have a lot of compassion for this stage of development — I’m a critical thinking late-bloomer myself. But I also know how fatiguing it is to work alongside someone when they aren’t as capable as you need them to be.

If I don’t have a good grasp on the why of what I’m doing, I need to be told a lot of things at every step: how to adapt to new inputs and circumstances, if my output is any good. I don’t have the tools to adapt on my own or to judge my own work. All of that becomes someone else’s work, which is an exhausting burden.

Andy: It’s why so many job descriptions list critical thinking as a prerequisite. But requiring all the whys to be filled in is a chicken-or-egg situation: Where is someone supposed to get the understanding they don’t have enough understanding to get?

Emma: Lucky for your interns, they’ve got you!

Using 5 Whys to Spark Critical Thinking

Experience helps build critical thinking muscle. So does exposure and repetition. But in our experience, it’s discussion that accelerates growth the most. This will sound familiar to longtime readers of The Bent: We wrote about it in using scorecards to define success and the glorious simplicity of pass/fail.

One of our favorite ways to model and practice critical thinking with our teams is to use Toyota’s 5 Whys: Simply ask why again and again until you dig down to the roots.

We do this as a group exercise often, using a spreadsheet like this one to track our answers. (Writing is a good way to keep the concept concrete.)

Let’s try using the 5 Whys on your intern conundrum:

Starting statement: My interns do not know why they are using our 3D modeling program.

Why: They have never been taught.
Why: They didn’t need to understand why to pass their college classes.
Why: They could create good-enough models without understanding why.
Why: Because they could mimic high-quality models.

Result: My interns do not know why they are using the 3D modeling program because they’ve always been able to mimic high-quality models in school.

Pale pink divider

Starting statement: I need my interns to know why they are using our 3D modeling program.

Why: Because they should.
Why: That’s what they need to do the job well.
Why: They’ll understand that a 3D model isn’t about making something look good. It’s about testing a design to prove that it is feasible.
Why: Because if we design something that’s not feasible, the project will fail before construction (potentially risking the client relationship and success of the contract), or the project will fail after construction (potentially squashing humans in a pile of rubble).

Result: I need my interns to understand that we use the 3D modeling program to test if a design is feasible in order to ensure the success of the contract, and so we don’t put human lives at risk.

Try It with Your Team!

When you’re ready, get all the interns in a room and model the 5 Whys on something easy — try something like You should wear sunscreen. Then, have them partner up and try the 5 Whys on this statement: We use this 3D modeling program.

They will have to practice articulating why, maybe for the first time. Cool! It’s a first step into curiosity! Use the range of answers to track how the group’s understanding is taking shape and where you need to focus your coaching. Let us know how it goes!)

Other Ways to Use 5 Whys

The 5 Whys work well on complicated, confusing, and subjective concepts. We use it all the time to dig into gut feelings like:

  • This piece of work is good.
  • This piece of work is a disaster.
  • I want to cancel this 1-on-1.
  • They should get a promotion.
  • They need to go on a performance improvement plan.
  • That meeting was pointless.
  • I’m so tired.
  • I’m overwhelmed!



Andy: I have to remind myself that we all do what we’re told without really understanding why all the dang time: PE class, cooking, and, yes, often even parts of our jobs. Why am I having this 1-on-1? Who knows! I’ll just copy what my good bosses did and try to avoid what my bad bosses did.

This kind of imitative trying can get us pretty far — it at least gets us on the court, showing up and trying.

Emma: When the work is hard and there’s lots of it, understanding everything is a very tall order. Your interns aren’t going to master the why of your 3D modeling program right away, no matter how clearly you explain it. That’s okay. Give them a break, and give yourself a break, too.

One of the first stages of learning is moving from Clueless to Aware. It’s a big jump! Going from Clueless to Mastery in one internship would be superhuman.

Andy: If you have an intern who gets it all that fast: Hire them immediately.

Emma: We’ll probably all work for them some day.

A Quick Refresher of the 4 Stages of Learning

As we learn, we move through phases of deeper and deeper understanding. You can track your progress on this continuum, and you can track your team’s progress, too.

1. Cluelessness: We don’t even know what we don’t know yet.
Eating only Pop Tarts all day and enjoying it. The 5% of the time we eat something else is just randomly getting it right.

2. Awareness: We are aware of the parameters.
Learning that Pop Tarts all day isn’t good for you.

3. Comprehension: We understand the reasoning — we may not always get it right.
Maybe still eating Pop Tarts for breakfast, but could explain what a good breakfast choice is and why.

4. Mastery: We consistently make the right decision and we know why.
We don’t even consider Pop Tarts a breakfast food. We are eating our oatmeal with flax 95% of the time.

Good Boss Achievement Stickers: Critical Thinking Edition