Why “What” Is More Important Than “How”

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Part of a leader’s job—a big part—is to define the destination. You can call it the vision, the target, the goal. At a certain point, these terms become almost interchangeable. They are all some version of “This is where we want to go.” Problems can arise, however, when the leader follows “This is where we want to go” with a rigid “And this is how we’re going to get there.”

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Why is this a problem? Two reasons:

  1. It doesn’t take into account that fact that situations change.
  2. It takes the rest of the team out of the game.

There’s an old adage in the military: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” What this means is that when your plan meets the real world (“the enemy”), the real world wins. Yes, it’s important to have a plan. But while that plan may live on paper (or on a computer hard drive), the execution of that plan lives in the real world, where stuff happens. Like, for example, a key supplier going out of business. If your plan is too rigid, the “stuff” of the real world is going to be a problem. And the real world is going to win.

If your plan is too rigid, the “stuff” of the real world is a problem. The real world is going to win. Share on X

That’s why the military has another tenet: commander’s intent. Commander’s intent succinctly describes what constitutes success for the operation. It very clearly spells out the “what” and the “where,” but not the “how.” This way, a team that’s clear on the commander’s intent can improvise as situations change.

Let’s say the commander’s intent is to cross the river. The team gets to the designated spot, only to find that the bridge has washed away. Now, if the commander had said, “We want to cross the river, and we’re going to do it by crossing the bridge at Position X,” then the plan would pretty much come to a halt, because there’s no bridge at Position X. But with commander’s intent, the team knows what the destination is, and they can come up with their own “hows”:

  • We can wade across the river if it’s shallow enough.
  • If it’s too deep for wading, we can swim across.
  • If it’s too wide/cold/strong for swimming, we can build a boat.
  • Or…we can use that other bridge half a mile away.

This approach also takes care of the second problem, that of taking the team out of the game. When the leader dictates not only what is to be done, but also how it’s to be done, the rest of the team is basically relegated to drone status, just mindlessly doing the work.

I don’t have the statistics in front of me, but I’m guessing that very few 7th graders, when asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” answer, “I want to be a drone doing mindless work.”

A leader should focus on “what,” not on “how.” #leadership Share on X

When you, as a leader, focus on the “What” and let your team focus on the “How,” you’ll get better results from a more engaged team. And that sounds pretty good to me!


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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