Are the “what” and the “how” really that important to organizations? The “what” and the “how” are abbreviated descriptions for two critical elements organizations (and the leaders and employees who drive them) need to function. The “what” represents results that come from the performance of work done at the individual, team or organizational level. Examples of this include: a company exceeding its sales targets, a product development team creating a new item to offer to customers, a leader getting a project completed ahead of schedule and an organization launching a new accounting system. The “how” represents the optimal way of obtaining results and making it more likely the results will be sustained in a productive way.

The challenge is that leaders, teams, etc. often become obsessed with just one of these elements. They are so focused on results that they do not pay enough attention to the approach that was used to obtain them. This singular perspective is a reflection of an organizational culture that creates “what” vs. “how” challenges such as:

  • Selling customers a product they really don’t need vs. learning the customers’ businesses and partnering with them to find the right product
  • Steamrolling people in meetings to obtain a solution vs. soliciting their input to get ideas that increases their commitment to them
  • Taking a project back from a direct report to complete it vs. using the project as an opportunity to provide coaching to the direct report
  • Going live with a new accounting system just to get it launched vs. planning the implementation so that the organization is more supportive of it

This excessive focus only on results is a short-term perspective. It doesn’t consider the impact of the process that was used to achieve the results. There are countless examples of the negative consequences of this “ends justifying the means” perspective in the news. Some of obvious examples are the money-driven financial firms on Wall Street whose actions served as a catalyst for the Great Recession.

There is no doubt that results are important, but consideration of the manner in which they’re obtained is critical to ensure ongoing success is sustained in the most positive way. Focusing on the “how” along with the “what” of results may take a little more effort, but it does pay off over time. For example, business research has shown that there is a link between employee engagement (an example of a “how” approach) and business outcomes such as productivity and profitability.

Therefore, companies that address employee engagement as part of their strategy for achieving results can further impact productivity and profitability in the present and future. In order to obtain the benefits at the individual, team and organizational levels, it just takes discipline to ensure both aspects (the “how” and the “what”) are key elements in sustaining results.


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti