Stop Asking Why About How

Author and public speaker Simon Sinek has this book (and TED talk) “Start with Why.” It speaks to purpose. If we have a goal, and we want to achieve it, we need to know why. If we need the help of others to achieve it, “start with why.” Explain why. This explanation links the goal to a higher purpose, helping it all make sense.

A sense of purpose helps with well-being and happiness.

And so, “start with why.” Makes sense. So far…

Start With How

Once you know the purpose, the intent, the “why”, it is time to create some goals. If you have a goal that supports a known purpose, and you want to figure out how to achieve the goal, start with how. One simple way to “figure out how” is to identify others who have achieved the goal, and simply model them. For example: If you want to know how to swim the English Channel, find a believable person– someone who has done it– and note their habits and rituals when they are training and later executing. They know the how. Start with how.

Absent any clearly identifiable people who have done it before, you can just try things. Do experiments. Aim at low-cost, low-risk, potentially high-learning yield experiments. At this point, it is probably good to be semi-random. Go on hunches. Use your intuition. Go on feel. Try something.

For example, try to stop needing to know everything up front. Try observing reality instead. Try Grounded Theory. Try something.


The Need to Know Everything Up Front Can be Very Expensive

If you always go into the How phase needing to know why the How works, you are going to either drive your teachers crazy, over-think it, or both. Just DO it and ask questions later. If the pattern works, the “why” takes care of itself…after a you gain direct experience in the subject pattern. Stop hedging and take a position.

For example, Scrum is great for getting good results with teams. Does finding the “precise answer” to  “why” prevent you from even giving it a try? If so you are over-thinking it. You are medicating with why.

Open Space seems to work. Does anyone actually know why? Does it matter?

Both of these wonderful pieces of culture technology- Scrum and Open Space- came into being through trial-and-error. The formulators just tried things.


The Cause is Usually Very Complicated

If you have to know “why” it works, you might end up focusing way too much on single-item causation, a very serious error when dealing with systems. If you know how something works, if you know the steps, the why of how it works is the last thing you need to know. What you need to know first are the actions and steps in the how. So, just go find that out. Just go do that.

Especially where social systems are concerned, where complexity is concerned, needing to know why a given technique works before you use it is just yet another excuse to engage in opinionated arguments, “causation thinking” and procrastination. Stop medicating with why. If you know how to achieve a result, just do it and ask questions later. The answer to the question “why does it work?”  is often very subtle and nuanced, and reveals itself later, after you gain substantial direct experience.


Related Links:

OpenSpace Agility: a template for moving forward (link)

Grounded Theory (link)

Scrum (link)

Open Space (link)

Culture Technology (link)