What not how
“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” Peter F. Drucker
“Doing the right things,” means leaders determine, clarify, and communicate what is done.
The other day I had a long conversation with a fellow leader concerning the execution of a plan. I thought we had already agreed on the plan and I was ready to set things in motion. However, he had concerns. He’s not the rethinking type so I was surprised to encounter his reluctance.
In the beginning, our conversation focused on how to execute the plan.
The problem with how conversations
How-conversations frequently express personal preferences, territorial perspectives, what about’s, and what if’s. They may quickly obscure real issues. What you want to accomplish can be defeated by how to get it done.
With airport announcements filtering over the phone we explored and re-explored how to complete the plan. Each step forward included two points of confusion. Each positive statement was followed by two, “what if’s.” The longer we talked the darker things became.
The power of what
I’ve learned to pull away from confusion before it paralyzes. We saw a light at the end of the tunnel when we shifted back to what we were trying to accomplish.
Previously, I thought we both understood the what. We hadn’t.
You’re doomed if you begin a how conversation before you agree upon and clarify the what.
“What’s” have more power to motivate than how-to’s. When what you are doing is important enough you’ll figure out how to do it.
Conflict resolution is an ugly power struggle until all parties can explain and agree upon what harmony looks like.
Customer service representatives must clarify what customer want before they know how to excel customer expectations.
Confusion or contention may signal the need to refocus and agree on what you’re working to accomplish.
Have you seen a great idea killed by how’s?
How can leaders keep great what’s at the center of how conversations?
Want something new but you’re afraid?
Peter F. Drucker was expert in asking questions and that questions opened all the perspectives of how. What always precedes how. And what is nothing but an issue in question, definition, purpose, goal, vision etc. I think in organization, what is a common issue and how is individual issue. And when it comes to individual, each one tries to impose ones ideas and it becomes chaotic. I also believe that What is transparent and how is layered with different perceptions and self interested intentions. When leader ask how to do it? committed and competent people collaborate and incompetent and de-motivated people try to disintegrate on issue.
For example, on global warming issue, most affected were united but least affected are divided. But I wonder on global issue like this, how needs to focused upon otherwise what will become only a problem and not solution.
Organizational and Individual decisions are generally based on what but it is how that includes strategy, implementation and position. So, What is rather more important than how because it gives to direction, focus and concentration towards your goal or dream and how provides you different alternative and options from which you have to chose the best.
When leaders ask question, they force you to think beyond boundary and when you thought process goes beyond limit, you start finding new way i.e. how to achieve it.
“What” is a common issue. “How” is individual. Your observation here is very practical, simple, and helpful.
Your mention of different responses to global warming reminds me that a perceived or real enemy is also a very powerful component of staying focused on big issues.
Thank you for sharing your perspective and insights,
Ajay is a featured contributor on Leadership Freak. I’ve posted his bio and picture at: http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/featured-contributors/
Interesting concept. I totally agree with the “what” driving the “how.” But I would submit to you that unless we fully understand the “why” achieving the “what” becomes a barren and lifeless goal making the “how” pretty much irrelevant. The “what if” tends to quickly disappear when one has a good grasp of the “why” we need or want the “what.” “Understanding the why makes any how a lot easier to bear.” (Nietsche)
Great point. I think your comment also emphasizes the role of values in establishing organizational direction.
I appreciate you adding value to the discussion.
You hit the bullseye with this post. At all levels, not just leadership, the “what” needs to be clarified and is often what is missing when conflict stirs too long. Bravo.
One additional point, leaders who define both the “what” and the “how” run the risk of being seen as too directive and not listening. Once the “what or where we are headed” is defined, asking “how to get there” breeds contributions, creativity, empowerment, and buy-in.
Thanks for this post to close out a very educational week.
Thanks for your good word to me. I appreciate it.
I hear you saying leaders should stay out of the how. Wonderful observation. Your comment highlights the importance of leaders pointing the direction, explaining the reason (why) as Al indicates, and then releasing the creativity and abilities of others.
Success to you,
Kate is a featured blogger on Leadership Freak. I’ve posted her bio and picture at: http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/featured-bloggers/
Great Post Kate. You clearly demarcate as Dan points out boundaries for leaders and the “unleashing” of the rest of the team to make it happen. Powerful insight which I certainly will subscribe to. Thanks, Al
So from the group I have extrapolated a sequence of:
Why (vision?) leads to–>
What—(mission?) successfully achieved by –>
How/Who—(people with aligned values?) and those–>
Who determine How (application tools aligned with all three of the previous?)
Probably have the Who review periodically and When is the pace piece.
“…I’ve learned to pull away from confusion before it paralyzes. We saw a light at the end of the tunnel when we shifted back to what we were trying to accomplish…”
I’d like to shout this from the mountain tops so all leaders can hear (paralyzed leaders, that is).
Another great insight. Don’t stop writing!
That lesson came from many years of wallowing around paralyzed by confusion when just above the fog the power of “what” was waiting to bring clarity. What a difference.
I appreciate your kind words.
Best to you,
Great post Pastor. Lots of wisdom here.
It’s always nice to receive an encouraging word.
The quote from Peter Drucker is awesome. People often try to differentiate between leadership and management and there seems to be an implication that leadership is good and management is inept. Both are critical to an organization success yet America is longing for leadership.
I believe that leaders keep great “what’s” at the end of the conversation when they have and are living a relevant vision. Stephen Covey called this beginning with the end in mind: http://wp.me/pZiRD-4m
Thanks for sharing, Dan.
You have to love Drucker. I do believe that leaders manage and managers lead. However, leading and managing are two separate things that require unique behaviors.
Thanks for the link re: beginning with the end in mind.
Success to you,
I see (often) in my world (federally funded health insurance for children) the how’s of a federally funded program threatening to completely obscure the why (get children insured and healthy).
The other example that came up from reading your blog, Dan, is from The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. In his book, he discusses the bureaucratic miasma that existed when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. We all know what a disaster it was – supplies sitting unused, communications utterly unheeded, breakdowns in the communication chain resulting in death and injury to victims. Although I have huge disagreements with many of WalMart’s business practices, in this case, the management of WM authorized their local store managers to “use their best judgement” without fear of reprimand. One manager created an improvised “paper credit” system; supplies were loaded onto trucks and delivered to the areas most in need. Whereas the government resources couldn’t even get to “how,” private industry stepped up, understood the “why,” and figured out their own “how’s”.
Quite right. Dan. All of the group problem-solving techniques I teach start with identifying the problem. To get brutally practical, I push my client teams to come up with a SMART goal before they start discussing “how.” To agree with another commenter, I’ll note that these conversations invariably bring the “why” into focus as well. The best part is, sometimes that conversation makes clear the team doesn’t really need to do anything! Talk about a time-saver…
“We’re lost, but we’re making good time!”-Yogi Berra
A friend of mine says, ‘let’s go hike up this little mountain, don’t need gear, just hiking shoes.’
‘Okay’ says the rube from Missouri.
(I really should have looked it up to see that South Sister is 10,358 feet high, but hey, my title says it all…’rube’.)
About half way up this ‘little mountain’ we encounter scree. Scree are billions and billions of fine pieces of volcanic rock. (props to Carl Sagan) You take a step up, slide back down almost all the way and then repeat. You take a step up, slide sometimes all the way back down and again repeat. (It also makes the sound “scree” stepping on a bunch of it, just to let you know it is there.) Scree is nature’s way of laughing at human beings.
After 60-90 minutes, I am totally ticked off, not feeling like we were making any progress (maybe a few yards) and am very frustrated. I had become enmeshed in the ‘how’ we were getting to the top (or not) and the perception that this was the wrong way and what was this guy thinking!
I had lost sight of the ‘why’ and ‘what’ needed to be done to meet the ‘why’. It took a few frustrating hours, however we made it through the scree, got to the top, had an awesome sunny view, pure, cold glacial snow to drink, definitely worth the why.
Any significant reward always comes with a price of admission. The experience also speaks to pace. Pacing the hike, pacing change. It seems, in the eagerness to achieve the Why, leaders sometimes lose awareness of the pace of others.
Your killing me with all the new vocabulary words: “scree”. I love your Yogi Bear quote and the piesce de resistance is definitely your last statement. That one I wrote down in my “When in doubt come here folder.” Thank you for all your comments. They are certainly an enlightening experience. Regards, Al
How-ing something to death is a fairly common strategy by those who don’t want change to occur, or who are comfortable with their fog. Not a coincidence that those who enjoy using a singular power of ‘no’ also engage in it often.
Focused redirection is a good path out, as is gathering the power of many to enable a tidal turn in the desired direction.
Then, the skill of pacing comes in, as Doc mentioned above. (Pacing organizational tide is key.)
Thanks for posting, Dan.
Great post, thanks.
I’m a firm believer that “what” and “how” have to go hand-in-hand, but “what” must be established first.
Imagine getting a map out to determine the best route to get to your vacation destination before you had determined what that destination was – absurd!
One of my favorite literary exchanges is from Alice in Wonder land (not exact quotes, but the concept is below):
Alice: Which path should I take?
Cheshire Cat: Where are you trying get?
Alice: I don’t know
Cheshire Cat: Well then it doesn’t really matter which path you take
Seems silly written out so simply, but this is often how people approach things.
I can share a real life example of “what” being crucial before “how” can take place.
A few months ago I was asked to accept an important position this fall (volunteer of course) and manage a network of volunteers and communication for a non-prof. The position involves coordinating information and events with both paid employees and un-paid volunteers. The what of this reality is at this point, still a bit nebulous in terms of expectations, as well as the definitions of what this position actually means in terms of responsibility and goals achieved as a result of the position’s creation.
Until we have our official sit-down meeting next week as to the “whats” involved, including the expectations from my side of the coin as well, there’s no way to nail down the “hows” yet. In order for us and for me to possibly achieve the end goals (everything works and everyone’s happy) I need those “whats” to even have a plan to get there. Until those are clarified, I’m basically in a holding pattern.
Insightful post Dan. My favorite part is your explanation of the power of what and avoiding confusion.
Questions shift discussion.
People who are masters of a skill (Technicians) ponder tradeoffs between cost, quality, performance and efficiency (cheaper, faster, better, more).
If you need a straightforward problem solved, these are the questions to discuss.
People who master others (Leaders) ponder tradeoffs in purpose, (why), people (who), timing (when), direction (what), geography (where), and how.
When you shift the discussion for a technician by asking ‘who, what, when, where, why and how’ questions, you can completely remake your business.
Here’s a short video I made that discusses this very thing.
I hope you enjoy it and get some benefit from it.
Why is the most powerful tool required for change. When people are not “spiritually engaged” into the vision or purpose, all the What and How becomes a lip service activity.
I am still trying to comprehend “why” some CEO’s think HR must earn their place to the Executive table?.
In most workplace culture, particularly the subservient Asia, “Why” is often regarded a taboo word. The command and control leadership style stifles the need to justify the “why” and jumps straight into “how” it should be done. It’s either my way or the highway !
Be it a crisis situation or planned change for improvement, leaders take for granted the power of need to allign the “Why” in a teamwork context, before you can even think of the what and how to achieve. Could that be one probability in Dan’s case.
I am comfortable with “what ifs’, provided it surfaces as part of the discussion during the How stage. Is it not risk management and contingency planning?.
The biggest challenge leaders face is getting the people to buy-in, believe and value the pursuit of the Why, What and How. The biggest inertia to this is because leaders think they know all the answers, so much so they do not get people engaged in what is meant to be a TEAM.
I missed this one! This is rock solid!
Part of my duties involve issue resolution with customers. There are generally four kinds of customers I see:
– those who want to tell you HOW to fix the issue
– those who want to tell you WHAT the issue is
– those who DON’T KNOW what they want
– those who want to verbally ABUSE you
One of the great mistakes CS reps in my industry (healthcare IT) make is to mishandle the HOW customer by never really understanding the WHAT. Your piece is so applicable to that challenge – get to the real issue, otherwise you’re just fighting with the customer. Nothing gets accomplished, and no one ends up satisfied.
On the other hand, when we chase down the WHAT, we’ve now got a solid foundation to work from. Bingo! Great post!
Thanks for jumping into this conversation.
Your listing of four types of customers is instructive and useful.
You encourage me with your kind words.
Best to you,
Agree and enjoyed your post. Goal Achievement demands is most effective when the goal is crystal clear. By continually asking “what” you are clarifying the goal, which will then allows for the most efficient next step(s) “how” in achieving that goal.
I’m delighted you dropped in. Thanks for the good word. I appreciate it.
Happy Holidays to you too.