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Digital Marketing Ops in Action

What vs How People

Originally Posted on March 30, 2021 Via OpsInAction.com
Written by Brian Shaw

Colleagues, friends, family, and other advisors typically fall into one of two categories when discussing new business initiatives: What vs. How people. There are those that focus on ‘what’ is being discussed and then there are those that focus on ‘how’ it will get done. To be successful in business you need to be a ‘what’ person first and you must try to surround yourself with people who engage in thinking about the ‘what.’ 

The ‘how’ people fear new initiatives. New initiatives mean more work, more uncertainty, and more pain. A ‘how’ person may be very strong operationally, but strong operations people seldom like waves. Instead, professionals that are strong operationally love steady ground, a consistent workflow, and no surprises. By definition, new initiatives bring something different to the business.  

When discussing a new initiative, the ‘how’ people sit silently and seem disengaged from the conversation, or they introduce concerns that don’t have to do with the merit of the ‘what’ that is being discussed. Objections from a ‘how’ person often include concerns such as: we don’t know how to do that, we don’t have time for that, how are we going to do that, we are already too busy, and so on. While these objections may have merit later, the time to introduce these concerns is after you determine the benefits of a new initiative. 

For instance, a ‘how’ person may raise the objection that the new business initiative will cost too much. The ‘how’ person states, “this is going to cost at least five thousand dollars.” That concern is meaningless if you don’t know the benefits of the ‘what.’ If the new business initiative is likely to make tens of thousands of dollars then five thousand dollars is a good investment. You must first know the potential benefits of the ‘what’ before getting bogged down in the ‘how.’ 

By contrast, a ‘what’ person first evaluates the benefits of an idea. Before getting bogged down considering is it doable, how hard it will be, etc. the ‘what’ person will instead provide consideration to outcomes. 

If our business does ‘x’ what will be achieved? What are the benefits of doing ‘x’? In what ways does the initiative benefit our clients? In what ways does the initiative benefit our business? 

Only if the benefits are significant will the ‘what’ person then put effort into evaluating the ‘how.’ You shouldn’t spend time and energy determining the time, money, and resources required to do something before even knowing if it is in the best interest of the business. 

Your leadership table must be a place for a free flow of ideas. By wading through many bad and mediocre ideas you eventually find the great ideas. If your leadership discussions include people that shoot down ideas for operational reasons, then you miss the opportunity to discuss the benefits of a variety of approaches. 

Don’t despair if you are surrounded by “how” people. Change isn’t easy, it doesn’t happen frequently, but it can happen. Change happened to me when I evolved from a ‘how’ to a ‘what’ person, and that change has made all the difference in my career. I was inspired by learning from an amazing business leader named Jay Keating. 

In meetings, Jay would demonstrate ‘what’ versus ‘how’ thinking. He may not have used those terms, but he would explicitly table ‘how’ related questions that were being asked too early in the process. He made his team think in terms of ‘what’ was best for the business. Then, once we knew the opportunity, we could strategically tackle the ‘how’ of any new initiative. 

Coach the ‘how’ people in your circle and give them an opportunity to contribute. If your ‘how’ people are unable to evolve then consider not including them in the big idea conversations for your business. This applies not only to business associates, but also to family, friends, and other informal advisors.