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Board and Fraud is a blog that aims to bring a practical approach to issues facing the board of directors and the audit committee specifically in the area of governance, risk management, compliance, and internal audit, with a strong focus on fraud, ethics, and internal controls.

Root Cause and Critical Thinking…

“If you don’t ask the right questions, you don’t get the right answers. A question asked in the right way often points to its own answer. Asking questions is the ABC of diagnosis. Only the inquiring mind solves problems.” – Hodnett

Root cause analysis is a tool to help identify not only what and how an event occurred, but also why it happened. When we are able to determine why an event or failure occurred, we can then recommend workable corrective measures that deter future events of the type observed.

When conducting a root cause analysis, many use the 5 Why’s technique. By repeatedly asking the question “Why”, you can peel away the layers of symptoms which can help lead to the root cause of a problem. The 5 Why’s is a stand-alone technique, but is often used in connection with the fishbone (Cause and Effect or Ishikawa) diagram. The fishbone diagram helps explore potential or real causes that result in a single defect or failure. Once all inputs are established on the fishbone, you can use the 5 Why’s technique to drill down to the root causes.

That being said, it’s important the person(s) conducting the root cause analysis is/are thinking critically by asking the right questions (sometimes probing), applying the proper level of skepticism, and when appropriate examining the information from multiple perspectives.

In order to ask “Why”, questions need to be asked, received, and feedback delivered. The use of Socratic questioning is a nice tool that could help and you in a variety of ways.

Socratic questioning is at the heart of critical thinking and is based on logic and structure that emphasizes that any one statement only partially reveals a piece of thinking underlying it. The purpose is to expose the logic of someone’s thought.

Socratic questioning is disciplined questioning that can be used to pursue thought in many directions and for many purposes, including: to explore complex ideas, to get to the truth, to open up issues and problems, to uncover assumptions, to analyze concepts, to distinguish what we know from what we don’t know, to follow out logical implications of thought, or to control the discussion.

Over the years I have cobbled together, from various sources, some examples of Socratic questions, which are as follows –

Questions for clarification – Prove the concepts behind their argument. Use basic tell me more questions that get them to go deeper.

  • Why do you say that?
  • How does this relate to our discussion?
  • Can you give me an example?
  • Can you rephrase that

Questions that probe assumptions – Probing their assumptions makes them think about the presuppositions and unquestioned beliefs on which they are founding their argument.

  • What could we assume instead?
  • How can you verify or disapprove that assumption?
  • What would happen if...

Questions that probe reasons and evidence – When they give a rationale for their arguments, dig into that reasoning rather than assuming it is a given. People often use un-thought-through or weakly understood supports for their arguments.

  • What would be an example
  • What is….analogous to?
  • What do you think causes this to happen…? Why:?
  • What evidence is there to support what you are saying
  • On what authority are you basing your argument?

Questions about Viewpoints and Perspectives – Most arguments are given from a particular position. So attack the position. Show that there are other, equally valid, viewpoints.

  • What would be an alternative?
  • What is another way to look at it?
  • Would you explain why it is necessary or beneficial, and who benefits?
  • Why is the best?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of…?
  • How are…and …similar?
  • What is a counter argument for…?

Questions that probe implications and consequences – The argument that they give may have logical implications that can be forecast.

  • Do these make sense? Are they desirable?
  • What generalizations can you make?
  • What are the consequences of that assumption?
  • What are you implying?
  • How does…affect…?
  • How does…tie in with what we learned before?
  • What is the best … ? Why?

Questions about the question – And you can also get reflexive about the whole thing, turning the question in on itself. Use their position against themselves. Bounce the ball back into their court, etc.

  • What was the point of this question?
  • Why do you think I asked this question?
  • What does…mean?

The key to distinguishing Socratic questioning from questioning per se is that Socratic questioning is systematic, disciplined, deep and usually focuses on fundamental concepts, principles, theories, issues or problems.

I welcome you comments, thoughts, and suggestions.


Jonathan T. Marks, CPA, CFF, CFE


Christopher DeCarlo

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