As children, we learned to ask "Why?" and "Why not?" to understand the world around us. This curiosity is essential for learning and growth, but as we become adults and managers, this instinct can actually hinder our effectiveness. We often find ourselves stuck in "back-to-front" conversations, focusing on understanding the reasons behind a problem rather than finding solutions.
Today we will explore the benefits of replacing "Why?" with "How?" and adopting a forward-looking approach to problem-solving.
The Limitations of "Why?"
"Why?" is a natural question that helps us uncover the root cause of a problem. However, when we rely solely on this question, we can get stuck in a cycle of analysis paralysis. We may spend hours discussing the reasons behind a problem, trying to understand every detail, without actually finding a solution. This approach can lead to frustration and inaction, as we become mired in the past instead of moving towards the future.
For example, imagine a team leader who is struggling to meet project deadlines. They might ask, "Why are we always missing our deadlines?" The team might respond with a variety of reasons, such as lack of resources, poor communication, or inadequate planning. While these reasons are valid, they don't offer a clear path forward. The conversation might continue, with the leader asking, "Why didn't we plan better?" or "Why don't we have enough resources?" and so on. This cycle of questioning can continue indefinitely, leaving the team feeling unproductive and unfocused.
The Power of "How?"
In contrast, asking "How?" shifts the conversation towards solutions and action. Instead of dwelling on the past, "How?" allows us to explore ways to address the problem and move forward. This question encourages creativity, innovation, and collaboration. By asking "How?" we can identify practical steps to overcome challenges and achieve our goals.
To continue the previous example, instead of asking "Why are we always missing our deadlines?" the team leader could ask, "How can we plan better for our next project?" or "How can we allocate resources more effectively?" These questions promote discussion and brainstorming, focusing the team's energy on finding solutions rather than dwelling on past mistakes.
The Benefits of a Forward-Looking Approach
Adopting a forward-looking approach by asking "How?" has several advantages:
a. Fosters Creativity: By focusing on the future, we open ourselves up to new ideas and possibilities. Instead of being limited by past experiences, we can explore innovative solutions that might not have been considered otherwise.
b. Encourages Collaboration: When we ask "How?" we invite others to contribute their ideas and insights. This collaborative approach builds trust and promotes a sense of shared ownership in finding solutions.
c. Increases Efficiency: By focusing on practical steps, we can streamline our problem-solving process and reduce the risk of getting bogged down in lengthy discussions. This approach helps us identify the most effective actions to address the problem at hand.
d. Reduces Stress and Frustration: The "How?" approach emphasizes action and progress, which can help reduce stress and frustration. When we feel overwhelmed by a problem, asking "How?" can help us break it down into manageable tasks, making it feel less daunting.
Overcoming the Fear of Change
While the benefits of asking "How?" are numerous, some people may resist this approach. They might feel uncomfortable abandoning the familiar "Why?" or worry that they'll miss out on understanding the root cause of the problem. However, it's important to remember that understanding the reasons behind a problem is not always necessary to find a solution. In many cases, the root cause may not be readily apparent, and even if it were, understanding it might not lead to a clear path forward.
To overcome this fear, it's essential to recognize that "How?" is not a replacement for "Why?" but rather a complementary approach. We can still ask "Why?" when it's appropriate, but we should balance it with "How?" to ensure we're focusing on solutions as well as understanding.
Tthe way we approach problem-solving can significantly impact our effectiveness as managers and leaders. By replacing "Why?" with "How?" we can shift our focus from the past to the future, foster creativity, encourage collaboration, increase efficiency, and reduce stress and frustration. While understanding the root cause of a problem is important, it's not always necessary to find a solution. By embracing the power of "How?" we can unlock new possibilities and create a more productive, forward-thinking work environment. So the next time you're faced with a challenge, try asking "How?" instead of "Why?" and watch your team's problem-solving skills flourish.
Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.