The "How" is toast...

The "How" is toast...


There are three types of questions that we address in our career daily. These questions are associated with every action.


  • Why am I doing something (anything?)?

  • What am I specifically doing?

  • How am I going to do this?


Answering “why” is the most empowering. An understanding of the why delivers clarity of purpose and direction. It gives the reason to sustain effort. It is also often called “meaning”. The why is equally important for individuals and for organizations. But we will focus on individuals in this discussion.


Then follows the “what” – which is a specific problem (hopefully to achieve a larger why). An example in the context of a company is the product they build. The “what” addresses the customers problem. While the “why” is usually an internal driver while the what is external. Its the manifestation of the why. In the case of an individual the “what” is often the realizable goal and touches the external world.


Finally the “how” is the details that go into implementing the “what”. For e.g. in the technology world if the “what” is product then the “how” is the implementation. Or a particular manufacturing process. While the “how” is very important, it also gets commoditized the fastest.


The people (and companies) who understand all the three aspects are the most compelling. They close the loop the fastest - they innovate and move the fastest. Take Apple – they control the how and the what (and likely have good answers to why) and they create better products than Samsung which outsources parts of the what to google and other parts makers. Or take entrepreneurs like Sergey Brin or Bill gates who as easily comprehend depths of technology, process, and strategy – they make for very compelling leaders because they can connect all the dots. While controlling more pieces gives more power, its also more expensive and hard to do because other companies carve out pieces.   


As technology (and automation) continues to disrupt various industries, the above aspects - what, why and how - are also changing rapidly and will affect people’s careers (if they are not impacting them already) in a profound way.


Increasingly, “The How” is being taken away from humans and people should start worrying about the what and the why. As AI advances, may be they what and the why may be at risk too - but that’s a discussion for another day.


A century ago, manufacturing took away the task of making pots, pans, shirts – people still design them.  In construction, pre-fab walls replaced masons while architects are still not replaced.  Simple software has replaced accountants for minor tasks and tax-preparation. Fast forward to today where software is beginning to significantly reduce the value of call center employees through combination of IVR and voice recognition. Software developers themselves are more often gluing together pieces often generated by other software and often the glue is too. The training and quality of required persons is coming down progressively. However, the value is shifting to identifying what the customer wants. Just in the last few years, cost and ease of developing apps is plummeting; while there is huge  premium on product design, user interface and usability.


Of course, It is mandatory to bring up taxis in any such article. Most taxi drivers are now a “procedure call” in an Uber-esque program. A customer uses the software to express a need, the program picks a driver and tells her where to go.  The driver is a pair of hands and legs to manipulate the steering and pedals. No, I have not read the articles about self-driving cars – yet.


Even the process of marketing execution – that famously fuzzy function - is very quickly being taken over by software. After a designer proposes some creatives, software puts up different creatives, measures how well they do and optimizes. Because so much marketing is now measurable, this “targeting” is managed by software.


So in summary, between the how, what, why – there is a clear order of value. The “how” is getting automated in large measure in most walks of life. So while the how eats up the short term cycles, one needs to be clear on the “What” – which drives the medium term. However, one really needs a good sense of the Why to build a long term sustainable organization - that provides the inspiration / vision that teams will follow. A clear vision allows decentralizing the creation of many “what’s” that all add up to serve the vision. Having a clear “why” allows a company to become truly large.



NOTE: For those of you who are familiar with Simon Sinek’s Golden circles, the How, Why and What are looked at from a different context; the context of communicating to the outside world. In Simon’s framework, the “what” is a more basic concept than the “how.” I find that his ranking more applicable to communicating a concept because it is easier to communicate the what than the how. However, while realizing/executing a concept, the driver of direction and often of value is the “what” while the “how” enables achieving it. “What” drives “how” – much to the chagrin of engineering teams in most companies because  product management drives them. Or in construction the architect drives the contractor.