The difference between what and how

“Once the ‘what’ is decided, the ‘how’ always follows. We must not make the ‘how’ an excuse for not facing and accepting the ‘what.'”

– Pearl S. Buck

I train a number of clients to improve their project management skills. The first – and most important – step in the process is to clearly identify and agree on the ‘What.’ What problem, exactly are you planning to solve? What opportunity, exactly, are you planning to take advantage of?

You define the “what”  – your goal – by asking a series of questions that begin with the word “Why.” One popular methodology is to use the question and answer system known as “The 5 whys.” Asking and answering a series of “why” questions will enable you to get to the “root problem” that you are planning to solve.

The root problem is your “What.”

Unfortunately, many projects fail because we are too anxious to start working on the “how.” And as Pearl S. Buck cautions us, “we must not make the “how” an excuse for not facing and accepting the What.”

“Our plans miscarry if they have no aim. When a man does not know which harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

What is our goal? What is our real problem / opportunity? Is everyone on your team able to answer these questions clearly? Do you all agree on “why” this problem / opportunity is important to solve or pursue?

If not, this is the likely scene in your place of business:

“A lot of people run full speed with incredible urgency in the wrong direction.” – Justin Menkes

Ask simple, strategic questions. Then listen to the response. If the response only reveals the explicit reason – the symptom – then continue to ask questions, and listen until you discover the implicit reason – the root cause of the problem. The late, great management guru Peter Drucker said it best:

“My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.”

Once you agree on where you are going, determining how to get there becomes much easier. There will always more than one way to reach your destination – the ‘What.’ Never allow discussion of the ‘how’ to precede or interfere with your rigorous pursuit of the ‘What.’

In my training classes, we work several exercises around Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “”Six Honest Serving Men.”

“I keep six honest serving men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who”

Learn to ask questions. Listen. Understand the difference between the “What’ and the ‘how.’ Lead with the “What” and manage the ‘how.’ 

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