What's the most useful word in a leader’s vocabulary?

It's not ‘why’, says Razor CEO Jamie Hinton.

by Jamie Hinton
Last Updated: 28 Jul 2020

When confronted with a problem, it’s natural to want to know why it’s happening. Why did you make this decision? Why did you assume this and not that? Why didn’t you tell me sooner?

As soon as we hear ‘why’ in such circumstances, deep-seated synapses in our brains get to work and put us on guard. We start trying to justify ourselves, variously digging in or passing the buck so that it’s not our fault.

But have you ever noticed that as soon as you start asking ‘how’ instead of ‘why’, you get to the root of the matter quickly, and the blame and excuses disappear? Changing a single word in your questioning can create a positive and free-flowing informational approach to problem solving and it truly works.  

The 5 Hows

In technology, ‘how’ deals with processes, methods, approaches and procedures - elements of the workflow that can be shifted to ensure issues aren’t frequent or repeated. But using the power of ‘how’ is not just a one strike process. In fact, ‘how’ five times is commonplace. There’s also ‘The 5 Whys’ but that’s a different story

‘How’ questions used in a sequence force you to think about what’s possible and the way situations have unfolded. By examining the steps that led to the problem you can get a better sense of the moving parts from start to finish and where the tangible issues and solutions are. 

Here’s an example shared by IBM which paints the picture quite well, demonstrating the five ‘hows’ in action after a system failure.  

1. How did the system fail? Answer: The database wasn’t working

2. How did the database fail? Answer: There were too many database entries

3. How was it possible that this was happening? Answer: This scenario wasn't foreseen and it wasn't tested at this capacity

4. How was it possible that this capacity wasn't tested? Answer: There was no test procedure involved 

5. How was it possible that we didn't have a development process for when to test? Answer: We haven't done much capacity testing and are reaching new levels of scale

 From the ‘hows’ we can see the resolution is quite clear. The team needs to put in a new test procedure which will be suitable for a range of loads to be tested and proven. Simple enough and no finger pointing. 

This kind method can work in all sectors, so don't be blinded by the IT-sounding words. Just think of the last time you ordered something and the delivery didn’t go to plan or there was an error - these are the conversations which should be happening to resolve those issues. 

Problem: Our online ordering system has a glitch in the delivery process and customers are complaining

1. How has the ordering system failed? Answer: Products are being sent to the incorrect delivery address

2. How is this possible? Answer: Customers aren’t being given an option to change delivery address

3. How could we incorporate this option? Answer: By including it in our process once order confirmation has been completed

4. How could we ensure users are aware of the change? Answer: We could send users a message on their account and on their registered email address

5. How can we repair relationships with existing customers? Answer: Send them some communication detailing the changes to the ordering process

What would ‘why’ reveal in this situation? That it's either the customer’s fault or the IT team’s fault. You can see a bun fight developing. 

When we're talking about getting the best from people, effective problem resolution is a real test of the team and leader relationships. What happens when there are challenges which must be overcome and problems that need to be resolved is the barometer for the success of any team. 

Nobody wants to create a culture where team members don’t feel comfortable coming forward with issues and ideas. Deep down, when it comes to problems, ‘why’ equals blame and team morale falls when you go down this path.

‘How’ reveals the truth faster, more effectively and leads us to a root cause we can address. I challenge you to try this method at home, at work - with anyone - and notice the change in the response and the time and energy you save. 

 Don’t dwell on what's wrong with ‘why’, focus on what’s right and find a way forward with ‘how’. Good communicators aren’t interested in rationalisations of why something is going wrong. They want to find out how to do it right. The right questions will lead you in that direction.

Jamie Hinton is co-founder and CEO of technology consultancy Razor

Image credit: Razor

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