WHAT, now; HOW, then.

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What to do, not how to do is the central question for leaders

In these rapidly changing times brought on by digitalization, deciding “what to do” is ever more important than determining “how to do” it. And, deciding “what not to do” is perhaps most imporant of all.

In my conversations with executives, there is always the eagerness to learn how I can help them to get more clients, to grow the business, to make it more efficient, innovative and agile,…. to improve business performance.

These are all perfectly reasonable business outcomes. We all want greater success, and quickly. But then the discussion very quickly jumps to “how will you do that” for us? It is the wrong question and expectation.

You see, the starting point must always be to first determine the objectives that will help you achieve the business outcomes you want. It is first and foremost about getting focused on those few, but very important things what will make the biggest difference for your business – “the what”. How this will be achieved is secondary and always contingent upon objectives.

As the saying goes, “if you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there,” and this is nowhere. “What to do” is the central question to productivity and effectiveness – to getting to where you need to go.

The journey to your distination requires you to make judgements and assumptions about the market and your firm. It is like assessing the terrain and state of your car before you venture out on your journey.

In other words, questions like: What does the market – and specifically, the consumer – really want and value?

Importantly, this should to some extent be anticipative – oftentimes the customer does not really know what he wants, at least not yet. This may not always be self-evident, and requires adopting a mindset of inquiry and design-thinking in an iterative approach.

It was not until Steve Jobs discovered and articulated what the consumer valued most was simplicity and ease-of-use of a PC that things really turned around for Apple, thereby defining an entirely new market.

From this initial point of inquiry comes a second: What should be the firm’s role in this new reality? Why does it exist? In other words, what should be its mission?

Mission statements can and do change over time in order to stay relevant and impactful. A clear sense of mission is essential for employees to believe in their company, its purpose and the value it is meant to create for the benefit of society.

Tesla’s mission statement – “To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy” – hits the mark.

And finally, what competencies and capabilities must continue to be developed and invested in, in order to deliver on the mission and be competitive in the marketplace?

At its core, what sets the company apart? What is it known for to do really well, and how can it become even better?

Nike’s core competencies exist in their effective marketing strategies and innovative product design, two elements that provide much value to consumers. These competencies are not easily imitated and are leveraged to a wide variety of products and markets.

Determining the “what” for the business is not easy, especially when one is in the thick of things, managing the business – the daily grind. It requires one to step back from the day-to-day, to reflect, to question, to ponder, to debate, to test,….

It requires one to (temporarily) jump off the merry-go-round, adopt a “from the outside in” perspective, and formulate your assumptions and hypotheses before jumping back on.

Importantly – society, markets, consumers, technology change all the time, and at an increasingly accelerating pace. This means that your assumptions must continually be tested and validated, and change over time, or they risk becoming obsolete and invalid to the detriment of the firm.

Having a thinking partner can be emmensely valuable in this process – to question your assumptions and test your hypotheses. To help you crystalize “what to do” and “what not to do.” It is the critical first step before determining “how to do”. When you know where you are going, how to get there is a relatively straightforward task.

Throughout my career, I have protected and enhanced corporate reputations, saved or avoided millions for the organisations I’ve worked for and billions for the industries I’ve represented, and driven growth and profitability. All this was achieved by setting clear objectives in support of the business results we wanted.

If you need a thinking partner to help you determine what you need to do, get in touch with me.

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