Imagine you’re planning a summer holiday. You haven’t decided where to go yet, but you are excited, so you start to make a list of what to take: clothes, accessories, equipment… Then you realise, “This is silly! I can’t plan like this without knowing where I’m going”. And of course that’s right. Firstly, the summer holidays are a once-a-year event and a special occasion, so focusing on where you want to go is the obvious first step. Secondly, we’re usually quite emotional about our holidays and we have high expectations, so we need a vision of what to expect when we get there. And thirdly, our holidays are all about us, something that we do for us, so it’s up to us to organise it and whether we enjoy ourselves or have a much-needed rest or re-energise also mainly depends on us.
In my career as a management consultant, I see many parallels between the process of organising a holiday and how people organise themselves in the workplace.
I often observe people at work taking decisions about their actions without having considered where they are going (where their work is leading to). I see enormous confusion between what to do and how to do it, with weaker managers not seeing a difference, and only the best managers being clear in their minds whether they are working on the “what” or the “how” side.
The “what” dimension relates to the final stage of the process as it identifies the result you want to deliver. The “how” dimension is concerned with the intermediate steps of the process, the way you’re going to obtain that result. In many of the companies I work with, most people are busy discussing the “how” without a good prior understanding of the “what”. A simple example is the way that tasks are assigned, for example: “Your objective is managing the problem with that client”. But this statement muddles two things: an objective is a “what” but managing it is the “how”.
People often fall into the trap of confusing the “what” and “how” because:
1) In companies we mostly work on regular, ongoing processes rather than short-term events, so we often take as read what we want to achieve and give it little thought. And although it’s sometimes true that the desired final result is already obvious, the same may not be true of the important intermediate steps leading to it so these, at least, need careful consideration.
2) Our emotional involvement in the result is sometimes low, because the vision was produced by someone else and we don’t really feel ownership. So we tend to focus on actions, on doing something, and therefore we consider the steps to take rather than considering the final destination.
3) Most of the time we work on a specific part of a process, so we’re not responsible for the overall process outcome. We are comfortable thinking that someone else will be taking care of the overall result.
As examples, I see people stuck in long, boring meetings where people talk until they’ve lost all sense of direction. I see people who are really busy delivering their actions, but in the end, all their efforts fail to yield a useful result. I see bosses complaining that their team’s result was disappointing, given the time taken and the effort put in. And it’s surprising how many times I see people describing a result in term of actions, which entirely confuses the “what” and the “how”.
So how do we avoid falling into this trap?
1. Ask yourself and the people you’re working with: “Are we clear what we want to achieve?” well before you start talking about any actions
2. While you’re talking about a goal, try to form a picture in your mind of what you’re saying. If it’s a dynamic image with people busy working on something, you’re probably describing the “how”. If it’s a fixed image such as a report, a presentation, a number, an improvement now in place, then you’re describing the “what”.
3. Be aware of your feelings when considering how to solve a problem. Are you anxious, stressed, desperate to get started on that critical task and get it over with? If so, be careful, because under pressure we tend to jump straight into actions, before we have taken the time to understand why we’re doing it, because this reduces our anxiety.
Finally, in my experience as an executive coach I frequently see fatal “what versus how” mistakes from managers. Some managers are too rigid, often in conflict with their boss and they do not see that the “what” links to the objectives the boss wants them to achieve, while the “how” is the means to achieve them. Bosses commonly assign a difficult goal which confuses the “what” and the “how” and many managers instinctively resist it and try to convince the boss to reduce the size of the goal. In doing so, those managers can appear to be unfit for their responsibility. By contrast, an outstanding manager accepts the goal, ensures it is clear, considers the resources needed to accomplish it and only then starts to negotiate. By clarifying and separating the “what” and then the “how”, these stronger managers show that they are more flexible and reliable problem solvers.