Making 2012 count by asking 'why' not 'what'…

Sue Willcock Food for Thought

Most people I know will have given some thought over the break about what they might want to achieve in the coming year – either personally, professionally or both. For many of us though, we might have made plans in the past only for them to gather dust, metaphorically or literally on our desks, perhaps leaving us with a sense of under-achievement or (at the least) a bit demotivated.
This article looks to give you some ‘food for thought’ in how you make your plans meaningful for you and your business by focusing first on the outcome you are trying to achieve – i.e. the ‘why’, before moving onto the ‘what’ and ‘how’. For those of your who have read some of Stephen Covey’s work, the phrase ‘beginning with the end in mind’ may well spring to mind.
Five reasons that this ‘outcome approach’ works include:

  • It really focuses you on WHY you are doing something – and in the process filters out ‘noise’ and ‘stuff’ that might otherwise distract you.
  • It makes your goals positive – you will be driving towards something good, not doing something just to ‘fix a problem’ or move away from a negative situation.
  • The WHAT becomes intensely focused and you can make better decisions knowing what your desired outcomes REALLY are.
  • You are more likely to be motivated by the WHY and the results it can give you, than the practicalities of the ‘what’.
  • You will have a clearer picture of what success looks/feels/sounds like for you so will recognise it when you get there.


First, start with the ‘right end’ of the telescope
Many years ago, when I was a developing manager, I was told by an experienced leader that I was viewing an issue I was grappling with through the ‘wrong end of the telescope’. I had entered the conversation hoping for some specific advice, but instead had got an analogy about telescopes. Not quite what I was looking for!
Later, however, I reflected on his comment as being one of the most useful pieces of advice I’ve been given in my career. The approach invites you to always look at the ultimate ‘bigger picture’ at the end of the telescope, before commencing with the detail of what you do.

Everything you do and the way that you do it should be influenced by the ultimate outcome you are trying to achieve.

So, when undertaking business, project or personal planning, you need to first understand the ultimate result that you are trying to achieve.
To illustrate this, if I were to ask you to make me a coffee, the ‘what’ questions you would ask might be centred around how many sugars, milk, strength, bean type etc.  As we all know from the Costa-Nero-Starbucks et al explosion, there are many variations. However, ask the ‘why’ question and you will get completely different insights. I might want a coffee for any number of reasons, e.g.

  • To be sociable
  • To get warm
  • To quench my thirst
  • To get a caffeine hit

You get the picture.

The important learning is that the desired outcomes might be achieved by other means.

They will still meet my needs, but might not involve coffee at all. I could get warm by wearing another jumper, quench my thirst with a tea, be sociable in a bar…etc.
So, the key when business or personal planning, is to focus on the ‘what’ only AFTER you have understood the ‘why’ in relation to both your business, your customers/clients and yourself.
So, how can this knowledge help you in planning ahead?
For many of us, we might be entering the year thinking ‘OK, what do I need to fix and get better at this year?’ Our thought process might go something like this when thinking of a current business challenge we want to tackle in 2012:

  • What is the problem?
  • How long have we had it?
  • What is our worst experience with this problem?
  • Why have we not solved it yet?
  • How might we solve it this year?
  • What needs fixing and what action do I need to take?

In terms of how you might feel having asked all these questions, I am guessing that you might be feeling a bit low.  Certainly, in terms of managing change, these questions can be useful in managing people through the need to change, or creating what Kotter calls ‘a burning platform’ for change. They can help take people on an emotional journey downwards to highlight why things may need to change.
However, when thinking about being outcome driven and using the approach to understand what you, your organisation or a client/customer really wants, it’s much more productive and motivational to ask different types of questions. These include:

  • What are we trying to achieve/What do we want?
  • What will that give us? (i.e. the ‘why’)
  • What aspect of the business strategy does this support?
  • How will we know when we get there?

And for more detail…

  • Where (which areas of the business/geographically) would you want to use this?
  • What else will improve when we get it?
  • What resources do we already have that might help us achieve the outcome?
  • What is something similar that we have succeeded in doing?
  • What is the next step? (could be just a ‘baby’ step)

“We need a meeting”
Meetings are just one area in business where I often see a lack of understanding of the desired business outcomes which result in wasted time and lack (or completely incorrect) focus.  Take the following scenario as an example.
Every Tuesday night, Bob set his alarm for a wake-up call at 4.30am. Saying goodnight to his teenage children and leaving them to stay up late watching TV whilst he went upstairs for an early night had become commonplace. Wednesday morning came all too soon and the familiar beep-beep-beep of the alarm sounded in the darkness, he reached for the alarm and one-eye open made it to the shower. Later, enjoying his first coffee of the day on the fast train to London at 5.50am, he felt good knowing that he was in for a positive day in the office. The monthly sales meeting and it was always great. After the initial ‘going through the figures’ bit, everyone got to talk about their successes and they shared what had gone well and not so well in the month. Some people were pretty open, some just said good stuff to make themselves look OK in front of the others. Bob liked it because, even though he had to get up early and it encroached on his Tuesday evenings, he got to be re-inspired and share information with other colleagues.
So, for Bob, his desired outcomes were:

  • Get inspired by others
  • Share information and learn from colleagues
  • Be aware of the sales figures and how he fared against his colleagues, which promoted his competitiveness and enhanced his performance.

Steve held the same role as Bob. His desired outcomes for the meeting were:

  • To get up to speed on the sales figures
  • To understand where there might be cross selling opportunities amongst his colleagues
  • To have the chance to ask any questions on the figures
  • To get this all done as quickly as possible so he could get on with his face to face client meetings and meet his sales figures.

You might imagine how Steve felt about his 4.30am wake up call.
Both Bob and Steve’s outcomes may well be valid business requirements, but by asking “what are we trying to achieve?” (i.e. understanding the outcomes) both from the meeting and at a higher, business level, you can see how the means to achieving them can be questioned and new ways – virtual meetings, specific social activity, pre-distributed sales information etc., might all play a part and in the process in meeting business/personal objectives more effectively.
So, when planning your year for maximum effectiveness:

  1. First, understand your desired outcomes – what ultimate outcome are you trying to achieve?
  2. Next, consider HOW you might you achieve them. What works now, what could be better? Are there different means to achieving the ultimate end goal?
  3. Now…get rid of anything in your plan or on your to do list that does not contribute to your desired outcomes. Get focused!

There are many, many applications to this way of thinking beyond the business planning process.  I’ve used it in the context of creating new teams and defining their purpose, creating a customer service focus, internal process reviews and designing training interventions, to name a few areas.
To find out more about how the approach might help your business, please contact me, Sue Miles, for an informal chat on 07882 209788.