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  • Matt Turner

When how beats why

When How beats Why…and for Whom.

The great and the good are telling us all the time to Start with Why… I’m here to tell you that Starting with How is not as bad as you might think.

6 months ago, I published a post on LinkedIn…

In highly command and control, low safety, high blame cultures that have lots of dissatisfaction and conflict due to the wrong thing being done badly…

…it is absolutely OK to begin by doing the wrong things better.”

Don’t misinterpret my intentions or beliefs, I love a Why.

I do think that Simon Sinek makes a great point in his famous TED Talk.

I have learned many things from the legendary Russ Ackoff, but his oft recited quote…

“All of our social problems arise out of doing the wrong thing righter. The more efficient you are at doing the wrong thing, the wronger you become. It is much better to do the right thing wronger than the wrong thing righter! If you do the right thing wrong and correct it, you get better!”

…well whilst I can agree with the reasoning, I think to make his statement true he also has to make a few assumptions.

One would be that the people doing the thing wrong are the same people making the decision about which thing to do.

Another would be, that those same people are consulted about how everything turned out.

In my experience, where help is needed most, both of those assumptions do not stand up to scrutiny.

In my experience a limited number of people, at or near the top of an organisation decide both What to do and How it should be done. The What would be the mission and strategy, and they are in a great place to have the casting vote on that. The How, the execution of the plan, I frequently find that whilst this is not explicitly dictated by those at the top, it is implicit in the constraints of the system governance, policies and process they insist upon.

These governing constraints will often disable the people close to the work, close to the information, and make it extremely difficult to deliver the value they have been directed at. Hampered or not, they do deliver, but not to their full potential…

…and so, they catch the flak. If the plan didn’t work then it must have been in the execution is, more often than not, the conclusion seniors come to. From here it is no great leap to, “estimate better!” or “you’re going to have to make this time up!” or “you’re staring down both barrels of a performance improvement plan buddy!”

In response to my LinkedIn post, the esteemed, Allan Kelly added, “In the first instance do(ing) those “wrong” things better will give you the credibility which allows for the change.”

He also pointed me to one of his blogs which discussed an MIT Sloan Review piece titled Avoiding the IT Alignment Trap – “This occurs when IT operations are aligned to the business (i.e. they are doing what the business wants) but they are not effective. Only 11% of companies fall into this zone – together with the first category this means only 18% of companies actually have IT and the business aligned, quite shocking. These companies spend 13% more than average on IT but the annual growth in sales is 14% below average, a pretty poor showing really.

Such companies are doing the right thing but they are doing it badly. From the figures given this seems to be the worst category to be in, highest costs and lowest sales growth compared to average. Think about that for a minute. These companies have it half right, IT is aligned with the business, but they are not effective. These companies would be return better results if they gave up on business alignment and joined the 74% in the maintenance zone.”

My findings are that organisations in this position, grievously mistrust the people and teams responsible for delivery, put ever more disabling constraints and micro-management around them and results decrease more and more.

As Product Evangelist John Cutler put it in a similar social media post a few months after mine;

“What’s happening in these orgs is that the dependencies and constraints are overpowering. The system is gunked up (like a stuck gearbox). Teams can’t focus on outcomes even if they want to.

And everyone is impatient. The teams ARE right that a historical focus on output created the monster. They ARE right that the big, prescriptive roadmaps are killing any chance of experimentation. They ARE right that playing order-taker for the business is hurting overall outcomes.”

But paradoxically a focus on outcomes will not fix the problem.”

We need to de-gunk the gearbox. It’s quite a nice analogy suggested by John, after all who is going to want to take a trip in a car they can’t trust? No-one, not for any distance, in any direction.

I have my own analogy. Having spent a chunk of time working the folks at Waters Corporation, an industry leading force in scientific analytical instrumentation and software, I find myself summoning a laboratory metaphor.

A research scientist might have a wonderfully articulated hypothesis to test, but without a reliable lab and confident and proficient lab technicians, who could trust the results. They would always be refutable. Untrustworthy.

Start with how. Ensure the lab works. Instigate empirical measurement.

Even if the Why is questionable, the hypotheses hold no useful value, speculative at best. Make sure that you are testing them thoroughly and quickly…and their lack of integrity will be highlighted early.

This will deliver the credibility Allan refers to. This will establish the trustworthiness of the delivery capability and if there is still dissatisfaction, then it is probably the things they are being asked to deliver that are not being received well by the marketplace, the consumer. Now we can redirect our attention to the people who look after the Why, who describe the Value. We can help them think of better experiments to run.

We are not assuming they have some divine understanding of what is needed, but now we have a trustworthy delivery capability we can use it to learn fast the exact What(s) that will deliver on our Why.

How might we start on this path, well, to me this is all about Flow. Flow of information, flow of learning, flow of work that might bring about value. Flow of delivery. Tackle flow and it will allow Delivery to feed Strategy. Learn by Doing as opposed to the gunked up gears that didn’t “do” and thereby inhibited learning.

Like the scientist at Waters discovered, you can embark on a wonderful voyage of Value discovery by focusing on Flow…and starting with How.

by Matt Turner, 11/10/22


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