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.
"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.
- 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.
- 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" 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.
- The "What" Simplicity is essential
for everyday use of
structured group processesof 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" 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" 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. Top Next Issue
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
- And on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
- In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.
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