The 4 ‘So Whats’ of Impact

The Toyota ‘5 Whys’ Technique

Sakichi Toyoda, the king of Japanese inventors, developed a simple yet powerful technique for finding the root cause of a problem. He called it the Five Whys, and it is still in use today in the Toyota Motor Corporation founded by his son.

Toyoda said that to get to the root of a problem, you should ask “Why?” five times until you get to the ultimate answer. For example:

“The car will not start.”


“The battery is dead.”


“The alternator is not working”


“The alternator belt is broken.”


“The alternator belt was worn out”


“The car was not serviced according to the recommended schedule.”

It’s a remarkably useful discipline and widely used beyond the Toyota corporation. I only read about it recently – and when I did, I realised I’d been doing something similar in impact for years.

Experience of asking ‘So What?’ in Impact

When I read about the Five Whys technique, it resonated with my experience as an impact manager. When I was in that role, a large part of my work involved sitting down with academics and trying to extract from them some account of the impact their research had had – or discussing their research and trying to define the potential impact and plan accordingly. In these conversations, a technique I found useful was to ask “So What?”, and keep asking it until we had drilled down to the real impact. Something like this:

“I produced an important report on problems with language teaching in secondary schools”

So what?

“I met with officials in the Department for Education who were very keen on my work”

So what?

“Based on the report, the minister instructed schools to use a more effective language learning system”

So what?

“All state secondary schools in England now use the new system”

So what?

“Language attainment in Key Stage 4 has improved by 15% since the change”

Now in this example, there is real impact after only the second So What – but persisting with the So Whats reveals a much more impressive story.

As with the Five Whys, four is only a rule of thumb. Sometimes you might get there in three, sometimes it might take longer. The important thing is to keep drilling down until no further impact becomes apparent.

Using the 4 ‘So Whats’

The most obvious use for the four So Whats is retrospectively. When drafting an impact case study, for example, the So Whats can readily provide the structure of an impact narrative. But it’s then vital to look at the answers to each So What, and ask what is the evidence to corroborate that answer. In this way, the So Whats become a guide to the evidence-gathering activities that are crucial for any case study.

The four So Whats can also be useful in impact planning. It’s just a matter of starting from the proposed research and asking the So Whats, at every stage seeking answers that lead towards impact. Something like this:

“I’m going to develop a new lightweight composite material”

So what?

“It will allow companies to make lighter wind turbine blades”

So what?

“Electricity generation from wind power will become more efficient”

So what?

“Carbon emissions will be reduced”

Now, this can often lead to branching outcomes. For example, at the third stage above, instead of more efficient electricity generation, we might have said “Turbine manufacturers will be able to bring a new product to market”, or at the fourth stage, instead of carbon emissions, we could have said “Power companies will be able to increase their profitability”. This is fine at this stage, you can keep asking So What and creating branching chains of impact to your heart’s content. The next stage is to trim the branches. Look at the end of each chain, estimate the reach and significance of the potential impact and its feasibility, and on that basis either retain that branch or remove it. Having done this, visit each stage of the branch and consider what actions will be needed to move from one stage to the next. Estimate the resources needed, and consider any dependencies on other activities. You will then have the structure and essential content of an impact plan – all you need to do is incorporate the activities and costs into your research proposal.

In the same way, when asking ‘So What’ retrospectively for an impact case study, you can end up with a set of narrative branches. In these cases, it’s simply a matter of looking at the end of each branch and assessing the reach and significance of the resulting impact. Prune the weak, keep the strong.

Advantages of the ‘4 So Whats’ over more formal impact tools

There are, of course, more elaborate impact tools, containing much more sophisticated guidance about types of impact, different sorts of pathways, and so on. These can certainly be useful. They do, however, have their limitations. The first is that, however you try to taxonomise impact, it is so diverse that no category structure will be able to do justice to impact in all its forms. The second, more serious problem is that without individual guidance and support, many academics will just see yet another form to fill in – and God knows they have enough of them already.

By contrast, asking “So What?” in a structured and purposeful way is a simple, flexible practice that quickly gives actionable results. It can be done by an impact manager in consultation with an academic, or by the academic themselves whenever they can spend a few minutes’ introspection. It will only ever be a starting point, but you have to start somewhere, and in my experience getting that initial structure sketched out makes everything that follows so much easier and more effective.

So why not try it yourself? Ask “So What?” a few times. You never know where it might lead you!For more information or support on research impact from REF (Research Excellence Framework) Manager Iain Coleman, write to

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