How to Uncover Actionable Insights with the 5 Whys

Are your insights actionable? Are you confident you know the root causes behind your insights? Can your organization act on them? Do they drive your organization’s medical strategy forward?

If you are an MSL looking for ways to report more actionable insights or an MSL lead dreaming of the day your MSLs report more actionable insights this post is for you.

Keep reading to learn how you or your team can use the 5 whys method to uncover actionable insights that have a real impact on your organization’s medical strategy.

What are insights?

MSLs are in the field building relationships and engaging in scientific exchanges to uncover information that is valuable to their organization. This info needs to be communicated back internally so the organization can act on it. MSLs bring this valuable information back to the organization in the form of insights. The organization would not be able to successfully launch a product and improve the lives of patients without the hard work of the MSL team. Their work is mission critical!

An insight can be loosely defined as a discovery that informs a medical strategy.

If the insight is not actionable then the organization cannot do anything with this information. Insights should be something that helps make a decision. Information that is truly surprising can also be candidates for insights. Surprises may not be immediately actionable but often good for the right people to know if it's really an outlier/surprise.

What are not insights?

Because every organization and MSL team defines an insight differently, it’s important to clarify what are not insights. Things that are not insights include meetings notes, activity logs, info that lacks context, info not relevant to your organization’s therapeutic areas, etc.

actionable insights

What are actionable insights?

Insights should be something that your company can act on. Check out this ‘insight’:

“Met with Dr. So-and-So and showed her the slides on the new study data.”

Ok. So what? How does this help the company make a decision or inform the medical strategy? This is not an insight, this is an activity log. This could be valuable if more information is provided. It is the MSL’s role to figure this out. Now look at this insight:

“Dr. So-and-So believes the new study data will result in a change in the treatment of this disease state because it addresses an unmet need in pediatrics.”

This is more informative and helps make a decision. Actions that could be taken are to continue with current priorities or start an educational campaign to ensure physicians are up to date on treatment for this disease state. This is an example of an actionable insight and what you should be reporting.

How can you start uncovering this type of information in your meetings? Keep reading to learn how the 5 whys method can help you uncover the ‘so what’ behind your scientific exchanges and inform your organization’s medical strategy.

the 5 whys for actionable insights.png

The 5 whys method

This method was developed by Toyota to help uncover the root cause of a problem. It works like this: you ask why repeatedly (usually 5 times) to figure out why a problem has occurred or why a person thinks/acts a certain way. This allows you to uncover the real reason behind the physician's opinion or behaviors, and then you can determine how to address the root cause.

The 5 whys for gathering actionable insights

When interacting with someone in your disease community the 5 whys can be used to uncover valuable information that helps inform the medical strategy. Think of it as a questioning strategy. If done well and naturally in conversation most physicians will actually be intrigued/flattered at your deep level of interest in what they think/do. You will want to combine this method with your knowledge of your company’s medical strategy to figure out the ‘so what’.

The goal is to understand the ‘so what’ behind the insight and this doesn’t necessarily mean just asking why. Ask questions that make sense in the context of your conversation to figure out the root cause and impact.

The 5 whys in action

Here’s how to implement this strategy when meeting with a KOL. The goal is to understand why the KOL is sharing this piece of information with you and how/if this will impact the medical strategy. When in the meeting, start asking questions (why) to get an in-depth understanding. Here are examples:

actionable insights

Example 1: Understanding HCPs’ perception of new clinical trial data

Medical strategy: New positive clinical trial data has been published. Medical leadership wants to understand HCPs’ perceptions of new clinical data to determine resources needed for a successful launch.

When presenting new clinical trial data it is important to understand what the KOL thinks of the data and why. Are they impressed? Why? Are they disappointed? Why? Simply stating how a KOL feels is not something that can be acted on. More details are required to identify data gaps and additional studies that may be required.

When having this type of discussion with a KOL think about asking why to help uncover the ‘so what’ and report an actionable insight.

Scenario 1:

MSL: What do you think about these results?

Dr. KOL: This new study data is great!

Do not stop here. It’s good to know that the HCP’s perception is positive but your leadership needs to know why.

MSL: Why? What do you like about the results?

Dr. KOL: This disease state is quite debilitating and there aren’t good options for the patient. The study data suggests this treatment may address this unmet need.

MSL: Why aren’t there good options? What are the problems with the current treatments?

Dr. KOL: There is only one treatment option out there and some patients don’t respond. More options are needed for patients that don’t respond well to that one treatment.

MSL: Any thoughts on why?

Dr. KOL: Likely due to self-administration. It is hard for patients to adhere to the subcutaneous twice daily injection schedule.

By asking more questions, the MSL can figure out details, such as unmet needs, that help to confirm medical strategy and what to prioritize.

Scenario 2

MSL: What do you think of these results?

Dr. KOL: They are interesting.

MSL: Why do you find them interesting?

Dr. KOL: They suggest this treatment could help patients with this disease state but the safety profile from the study is concerning.

Your organization doesn’t just want to know that the HCP is concerned about the safety profile, they want to know the exact thing that is concerning them. Knowing this can help them decide how to fix this and what to do next.

MSL: Why do you find the safety profile concerning?

Dr. KOL: [Gives more details on what concerns him/her about the safety profile.]

More ideas for questions below:

MSL: Are the safety profile endpoints the most important to you and if so, why?

MSL: Are there other endpoints that you are satisfied with and why?

MSL: Or other endpoints that concern you? Why?

MSL: Are there other endpoints or data gaps that should be looked into?

MSL: Why do you view this as a data gap? What additional data do you want to see?

MSL: Do you have any other concerns about the data presented?

actionable insights

Example 2: Understanding the treatment landscape for a disease state

Medical strategy: There is positive primary data for a pipeline product. The organization needs to determine how these new products could fit into the current treatment landscape. The MSL field team is tasked with understanding how HCPs make treatment decisions for this disease state.

Determining a physician's first line and second line treatment preferences are easy. What’s more valuable to a medical strategy is WHY they choose those particular treatments. Understanding the physician’s decision-making process and what influences them helps your leadership plan for a successful launch.

Dr. KOL: [Describes first line, second line and beyond treatment approaches.]

MSL: Why are these your treatment preferences? Why do you approach it this way?

Dr. KOL: I strictly follow a specific set of guidelines and these are the official recommendations.

MSL: Why do you follow these particular guidelines?

Dr. KOL: [Gives reason.]

MSL: Do you follow these guidelines for all your patients? Or just certain populations?

Dr. KOL: [Provides additional info.]

Asking why questions allow the MSL to determine the root cause or rationale behind why physicians treat the way they do. Communicating these insights back to the organization helps determine how to position the drug and ensure a safe and speedy launch.

Don’t be too literal with this technique. The point is not to ask why repeatedly but to direct the conversation in a way that gets to the root cause of the issue.


The medical strategy and priorities for every organization are different. It is important to always keep these in mind when planning a discussion with your KOLs. The 5 whys method will help you lead the conversation in a way that uncovers actionable insights.

Give it a try, you will have this mastered in no time. When reporting your insights ask yourself if it will help your leadership make a decision? Have I gathered all the necessary details? If not, keep asking questions!

Do you have a favorite interviewing method to uncover the ‘so what’ when meeting with your KOLs? Please share!

More pro insights tips:

  1. Understand what good insights look like. Download our insights guide for more details.

  2. Don’t feel compelled to force insights or always try to find an insight when it doesn’t exist.

  3. Knowing when to stop asking is key. Keep asking until there are no logical possible answers to the prior one.

  4. Report it right away. It is easy to forget details about the insight. With kernel you can use an app to report it offline.

  5. Keep it short and to the point. Your leaders are likely receiving large numbers of insights, they don’t want to read lengthy insights. Using a structured data approach to insights can help decrease the number of insights and make them more quantitative.

  6. Make sure insights are related to the medical strategy and top priorities

  7. Use proper grammar and check spelling. Grammarly is a helpful tool to prevent you from common mistakes.  

  8. Try not to introduce bias. The MSL’s job is to channel the KOL's thinking and apply it to help the organization advance its medical strategy, not spin what the KOL said to meet organizational goals.

Have some pro insights tips of your own? Share them so everyone can benefit!

Kernel makes gathering insights easy! Want to learn more? Get in touch!