I covered the concept of the “what” and the “how” of work long ago in my review of The Pursuit of Something Better.

In the book, U.S. Cellular is going through a dramatic culture change, and a large aspect of that is the shifting mindset from focusing on the “what” to focusing on the “how.”

Here’s a good example. Many years ago when the majority of the workforce was employed in factories performing manual labor, companies dominated the “how” of work. They told employees when to be there, how the work was to be performed, and when they could leave.

But that’s obviously not the case for most work these days. Companies are realizing that giving people control of the way work is accomplished (the “how”) is a great way to get employees engaged in their jobs.

Back to U.S. Cellular. The company started putting less emphasis on the “what” (sales targets, number of calls received, and other metrics) and more on the “how” (communication, ethical behavior, etc.). Despite the critics’ belief that they would fall on their face for taking their eyes off the all-important numbers, the company actually flourished. And, in time, the numbers looked better than ever, because the leaders within the company had the courage to focus on the bigger picture.

Take a moment to think about your own workplace. Is more emphasis being put on the “what” than the “how?” Are people pursuing good numbers and letting their ethics and morals fall by the wayside? Are managers using intimidation and fear to get the results they want instead of offering a thoughtful, considerate point of view?

Sometimes it can be difficult applying these abstract concepts to the way real work is done. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Coaching managers on how to change their thinking won’t be simple, but it is worth the effort. Doing so can mean the difference between success and failure for your people!

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  • 2 thoughts on “The What vs. The How

    1. Of course, this flies in the face of decades of “performance based management” research… which is precisely why I think it’s so compelling.

      People are complicated. As Paul Hebert has noted in the past, analogies between training dogs and human behavior don’t always carryover well because, well, we’re not dogs. We’re irrational, emotional creatures.

      Thanks for the refresher, Ben!

    2. Hi, Ben – – –

      Excellent points. Focusing on the “how” goes in so many positive directions. One thought on this point …

      … I believe that one of the most effective things a company can do is articulate its values — such as in the form of a Core Values statement, Code of Principles, or the like. By doing so, they are giving employees a pretty good view of the “how’s” that are important in that organization. Once people inculcate the how’s/values, then management can “get out of the way” (another key principle) and trust that employees will use good judgement in ways that are aligned with company values. It all ties together and works well … if the values are well communicated and truly “lived” by the organization (i.e., not just words on paper).

      Thanks for some great reminders.

      Michael Brisciana

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