We live in a culture that values efficiency, productivity, and action.

All good…if we’re doing the right stuff, the stuff that matters to us.

But according to Peter Block, best selling author, internationally known management consultant (and, in my mind, delightfully wise soul), our obsession with “How?” often trumps “Why?” and thwarts our willingness to engage with deeper questions of meaning, purpose and values. As he writes:

“We live in a culture…that seems to value what works more than what matters.”

Imagine a young woman coming to her parents, announcing, “I want to be an astronaut (or  poet, or  historian…), and hearing back, “How are you going to do that with your grades?”

Ouch!

In organizations focused primarily on execution, “How?” questions can be particularly addicting and enticing.

Picture a scenario that I saw time and time again while running a leadership program for a large client:

A team of emerging leaders comes to an executive meeting to present a proposal for improving workplace morale. As they hand out their briefing paper and explain the project’s rationale, the head of finance begins reviewing the document, trolling for numbers.

At the first pause, he launches, “How do you intend to finance this?”

That question – important but out of sequence – opens the door to a feeding frenzy of operational questions:

  • “How much time will this take?”
  • “How do you know it’s do-able?”
  • “How will you measure your results?”

These questions, albeit reasonable, distract the group from digging deeper into why this project was (or wasn’t) needed, questions like:

  • “What’s the real problem here?”
  • “Why does this matter to us, right now?”
  • “What haven’t we, as an organization, been willing to address?”

The team of presenters leaves the meeting puzzled and unclear whether the executives thought their project mattered. Nevertheless, they go back to work and in two weeks return with spreadsheets full of data and answers to all those “How?” questions.

The group receives permission to go ahead, and being a collection of talented task-oriented go-getters, they complete their project on time.

Senior leadership applauds them for their commitment and for getting the job done.

Three months later, the project is quietly shelved and forgotten.Screen Shot 2015-06-24 at 9.07.53 PM

In his book, The Answer to How Is Yes: Acting on What Matters, written more than a decade ago but more timely than ever, Peter Block states:

“We often avoid the question of whether something is worth doing by going straight to the question “How do we do it?”

“The question declares that we, as a culture, and I, as a human being are fundamentally about getting things done.”

There’s nothing wrong with asking “How?”, but rushing to it prematurely allows us to stay in our comfort zone, where we can seek control and predictability, and focus outside of ourselves for the right way to do things. And in so doing, we lose our opportunity for true brilliance and innovation.

“Choosing to act on ‘what matters’ is the choice to live a passionate existence, which is anything but controlled and predictable.”

Constantly asking “How?” and choosing efficiency over purpose is like stripping the low hanging fruit from an orchard, yet never nurturing the soil.

Block warns us to be cautious of the following types of questions, particularly at the start of a project:

  • How do you do it? (Often assumes that others know, but I don’t.)
  • How long will it take? (Drives us to take fast actions that oversimplify the world.)
  • How much does it cost? (Zeroes in on costs before we have a chance to consider values.)
  • How do you get people to change? (Leaves us trying to change others without ever pondering opportunities for own transformation.)
  • How have other people done it successfully? (Looks like a tame question, but can lead us to importing solutions that have worked somewhere else, rather than exploring what will work best where we are.)

Block, a great advocate of organizational learning, suggests the benefit of going beyond our need for quick certainty.

“This might elevate the state of not knowing to being an acceptable condition of our existence, rather than a problem to be solved, and we might realize that real service and contribution come [more] from the choice of a worthy destination than from limiting ourselves to engaging in what we know will work.”

There is a time for “How?”. It comes after we have asked “Why?”.

The two questions can live fruitfully in a creative tension (a.k.a. a polarity) as long as we don’t allow “How?” to eclipse “Why?”

Block’s insights helped me a lot this week.

I’ve delayed launching my overdue podcast after a bunch of technical and “How?” questions left me feeling swamped and bogged down.

After reading Block, I realized that I needed to re-visit why I wanted to do the podcast. “Why did it matter? What was its purpose?” As I pondered these questions, my vision became clearer, and the operational questions no longer seemed insurmountable.

The podcast came back to life.

In the hero’s journey, our heroine feels the calling – to find new discoveries, advance science, help her brother, achieve some inner knowing, whatever. While she’s terrified and wants to know “How will I ever do that?”, her journey begins with her decision to take the first step.

She won’t know. She can’t know. Life will teach her.

The only thing she can really know is that it’s her calling and is worth doing.

Whatever the challenges she may encounter, in the end, one thing is certain: by engaging in the journey, she will achieve her passionate life.

And through living her “Whys” she’ll discover her “Hows?”.