Improve Your Strategy Execution Process: Start with Why but End with How

Afterburner Team Written by:
Afterburner Team

Start Your Strategy Execution Process with Why

“Why did this project fail!?” If you have ever been asked this question, you probably imagine an invisible finger pointed right at you. What is it about this simple and seemingly innocuous, question that sends a chill up and down one’s spine? Even when asked as a genuine and objective search for understanding, it can still feel offensive. Is it the use of the word fail? Fail is a strong word, but it isn’t the only one in the question. The word why often carries an air of accusation, a tone of attribution – “Why did you do that?” When you hear it, the not-so-subtle message it communicates is blame – ‘it’s your fault,’ and a good strategy execution process doesn’t lay unnecessary blame.

How High-Performing Teams Handle the Problem

The consequences of blaming, even when subtly communicated through words like why is that it undermines the trust and candidness that is a requirement in building high performance teams. A team cannot perform at its best if its individual members are afraid to admit errors and offer constructive criticism. When a team sits down to formally assess its performance, an essential process to high-performing teams, it must remove the cues that hint towards accusations.

Why is a word that implies purpose. It’s fundamental to identity. As Simon Sinek, the best-selling author of Start with Why, has argued, an organization’s fundamental purpose is its cause of action rather than its course of action. An organization that formulates a compelling purpose, or why, better enables and empowers the various teams and the individuals on those teams to take action to fulfill that purpose. To use an ancient analogy first put forth by Aristotle, the why of an acorn is to become an oak tree. Like the cells of the acorn, the teams within a larger organization follow their purpose by making decisions and executing courses of action to grow the organization and fulfill its purpose, resulting in a much stronger strategy execution process.

Good Strategic Alignment Will Make Your Projects More Successful

Even when an individual or a team can set aside the subtle blaming of a why question, it may still struggle with the existential nature of it. What teams and individuals need instead is a questioning process that prompts a coldly logical cause-and-effect analysis. So, instead of asking why we should ask how. It’s a simple matter of replacing one for the other – “How did this project fail,” rather than “why did this project fail?”

But if anxiety over admitting human error stands in the way of discovering the root cause, the errors can never be effectively prevented. Asking 5 How’s instead of 5 Why’s, then, can help remove this potential barrier.

There is a well-known cause-and-effect discovery method to reach root causes known as the 5 Whys originally used by the Toyota Corporation. Root cause analysis is an investigation to find the end of the cause-and-effect chain. By taking a result, the 5 Why method instructs us to ask why something happened and, once we have determined that cause, ask why again . . . and again . . . and again . . . and again until we dig deep enough to find the root cause. The intent is to go beyond attribution, to look past the human failures and errors and to penetrate into process and organizational failures. Humans are always prone to errors, but humans can create strategic alignment and evolve organizational systems and processes to reduce or prevent those errors and reproduce expected results. But if anxiety over admitting human error stands in the way of discovering the root cause, the errors can never be effectively prevented. Asking 5 How’s instead of 5 Why’s, then, can help remove this potential barrier.

Why is a word we should reserve for descriptions of purpose and the genesis of action. We should start with why. How is a word we should use to understand what has happened after the actions have been executed. We should end with how.