The perils of “how”

Everyone does it.

(No, not that. Let’s have a little decorum here, please.)

In over 25 years in corporate America, working on  systems analysis, business analysis, and system design, I never saw anyone not do it.

And in all my years of self-employment since, I continue to see people doing it. Clients, colleagues, friends … and even myself, every now and then, although I definitely know better.

So what am I talking about?

Asking – and deciding on – how before you’re sure you know what.

Answering how before you know what is instantly limiting. It immediately puts you into a box. It inhibits – sometimes very painfully – your ability to access the true scope of what you want. After all, if the how you’re thinking about can’t get you to the actuality of what you want … that what will be stunted from birth, without ever being allowed to develop into its full potential.

So when you answer how before you know what, you’ll almost inevitably warp your outcomes (your what) into something that’s not really what you wanted. You’ll probably struggle a lot more to achieve those less-than-optimal outcomes than necessary. And you’ll never know why it was all so difficult and confusing.

We all know the old saying that when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But we don’t always remember to apply that wisdom to our every-day experience.

Let me tell you a little story.

A friend of mine invited me to a party. When I arrived and asked if I could help, she thrust a cutting board, a knife, and a bowl of tomatoes into my hands.  “Cut up the tomatoes!”

“What,” I inquired as I cored the first tomato, “is the goal?”

She looked at me as if I’d started spouting classical Greek.

“Sandwich slices or salad chunks?”

She wanted slices for sandwiches. But if I hadn’t known to ask what, she could easily have gotten something that wouldn’t have worked at all.

And that’s exactly what happens when we jump into solving the how question before we’re completely clear on what.  We end up with something that can be so different from what we wanted that it’s unusable … or maybe just different enough to be painfully disappointing. And we never really know why. 

So next time you’re thinking about something as small as – for instance – an article you’re writing or an email you’re getting ready to send, or as large as – for instance – a new service offering or program for your clients, STOP.

Ask yourself what you’re really trying to accomplish. Because the article, email, service offering, or program? Those are all answers to the how question. They’re the tool, the vehicle, the mechanism with which you deliver the what you want your audience to experience.

Asking what first opens up the possibilities and lets you see a wider range of options. It may be that the how you’re thinking of will be perfectly suited to what you want as your outcome. But there’s a very good chance that there’s something easier, better, faster, and more likely to produce the great results you’re hoping for.

Because whenever you pick the how first – whenever you select the tool before knowing the outcome you want to use it to create – you run the risk of missing the mark, and getting very frustrated in the process.