Brief thought exercise: in your work, do you prioritize the how, the who, the where, the why or the what?

Been thinking about this a lot recently; I don’t necessarily have anything dramatically important or relevant to add to the overall conversation, but I still wanted to chime in on it (I mean, this is still a blog I maintain, after all).

You grow up — and again, this is different across schools and cultures and communities — pretty much learning to think about things along the prism of different central questions: who, what, why, where, when and how. This is especially true/relevant if you want to go into something like journalism, but it’s also how a majority of people are taught about reading and understanding content. They are central / basic questions — they describe ultimately both the content and context of something we’re doing — so it’s interesting to extrapolate them to work, which defines a lot of people’s lives (by “work” I essentially mean “your career” or at the very least, “your present vocation”).

Alright, so obviously it’s all a big contextual quilt — hopefully there are points in your job where you think about the how, and other points where you think about the what — but if you had to select just one — and only one — of the above, what would it be?

You would hope that a lot of people would answer this question with “WHY,” because that would mean they’re thinking about the ideas behind what they do — as in, what’s the purpose here? But from personal experience (in different fields and with different kinds of people), I might guess a lot of people talk about the “HOW” or the “WHAT,” because how would speak to processes and what would speak to deliverables, and often those are more important (or at least can overwhelm) the real mission or value-add of the work. Consider: you deep-dive in several meetings on goals and visions for a project. The project actually starts, and a few things aren’t going as planned. E-mails are flying, bosses are yelling. What gets prioritized? The “WHY?” (as in, you think about why this was being done in the first place, and try to stick to the core ideas) or the “WHAT?” (as in, you figure out what the issue is and try to fix it). Probably the latter, no?

Maybe the broad lesson of employee engagement, then, is shifting employees from the how and what to the why; maybe that’s the real idea behind moving from “transactional” to “transformational.”

If you have thoughts on this, feel free to leave a few in the comments. I’d be interested to hear.

Ted Bauer