Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 10;   March 5, 2008: What, Why, and How

What, Why, and How

by

When solving problems, groups frequently get stuck in circular debate. Positions harden even before the issue is clear. Here's a framework for exploration that can sharpen thinking and focus the group.

Most problems facing modern organizations are too complicated for solo solvers. We address them as groups, and sometimes groups encounter difficulties. Group problem solving is something most of us learned by doing — few have trained for it, and those who did have learned different methods. Today's shrunken training budgets provide little aid, and we have little time for training anyway.

2nd. Lt. Henry Martyn Robert, U.S. Army (center)

2nd. Lt. Henry Martyn Robert, U.S. Army (center), directs the construction of gun emplacements at San Juan Island in what is now Washington State in mid-August 1859, during the "Pig War" between the U.S. and Britain. Robert is the Robert of "Robert's Rules," which he published in 1876. Robert's Rules is one example of a framework for a group process. Many other frameworks exist, undoubtedly the most numerous of which are defined as cultural norms. Robert's Rules is an example of an intentionally invented framework.

Other examples of invented frameworks for group processes are Alex Faickney Osborn's brainstorming, Virginia Satir's Temperature Reading, and my own What Haven't I Told You?. Examination of group process frameworks in actual use reveals that simplicity is essential for everyday use. For example, Robert's Rules as commonly practiced consist of only about a dozen of the rules in the current edition, which contains more than 100. Photo of an uncredited art work courtesy U.S. National Park Service.

"What, Why, and How" is a simple structure that can help. When we use it to explore the problem and its candidate solutions, it guides the discussion and helps avoid those frustrating loop-de-loops. Here's how to apply it (possibly iteratively) to clarify the problem.

What
Work together to write a clear statement of the facts of the problem. No excuses or explanations — just facts. Example: We were scheduled to finish by December 30, and now that appears impossible.
Why
The answer to "Why?" is our best understanding of the causes of the "What." It describes the mechanism that brought about the "What." It might identify several independent or interacting elements. Example: Since we underestimated the linkages between our project and other efforts, we had to compete for the time of some key people, and that introduced unanticipated delays.
How
"How" explains what keeps the problem in place. It explains the source of the problem's longevity, and how it persists despite our having recognized it. Example: Our project is now so late that even though we're getting the time we asked for from those key people, we need more than that to catch up, and they can't provide it because they have other commitments.

And here's how to apply What-Why-How to a candidate solution.

What
The "What" Simplicity is essential
for everyday use of
structured group processes
of a proposed solution is a concise statement describing it. No words about implementation, cost, or schedule — just the vision. Example: We'll work out a new schedule that allows us more time, and we'll also hire three contractors to accelerate our pace.
Why
"Why" summarizes our motivation for adopting this solution, including the advantages of this solution without reference to any other solutions. Example: Even if we apply additional resources, we can't make the December date, but we do believe that some specialized extra help will improve performance.
How
"How" provides a high-level description of the strategy and tactics we intend to deploy to implement the solution. Example: Todd will work with the internal customer to determine a new date, while Beth begins a search for contractors who can meet our needs. They'll coordinate to ensure that the date we get fits the availability of the contractors.

If your team faces an issue that has resisted resolution, try the What-Why-How approach. If you don't have an issue right now, but they often do arise, use this issue: We often encounter issues that lead to endless loop-de-loop debates that resist resolution. Go to top Top  Next issue: Responding to Threats: Part III  Next Issue

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