In the Digital Economy, the HOW is More Important Than the WHYby@e.p.m.vermeulen
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In the Digital Economy, the HOW is More Important Than the WHY

by Erik P.M. VermeulenMarch 5th, 2020
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A clearly articulated purpose is only effective when accompanied with an authentic process. The question of how to encourage entrepreneurship and investments is far more challenging than the HOW. The HOW is all about identifying practical measures that must be adopted to bring a project to fruition. The Why is Essential but Don’t Get Distracted with the HOW and the HOW is more important and difficult to discuss than the Why is the How. We need to be open to experimentation and be willing to pivot quickly and change paths to a destination.

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A clearly articulated purpose is only effective when accompanied with an authentic process.

I was in Rwanda last week. It wasn’t my first time. I visited the country last year, but this time I was even more impressed.

You can see how Africa is catching up with the rest of the world when you are on the ground in Kigali. And I don’t refer to the first “made-in Africa” mobile phones or the first commercial operational drone delivery service. I am talking about the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

I was in Rwanda to support the government with drafting policies and implementing measures that would encourage more entrepreneurship and foreign investments in the private sector.

You can call this my WHY. I want my work to inspire and impact people. I want to make a difference by helping people, organizations, and societies become more entrepreneurial, innovative, and successful in the digital economy.

Simon Sinek and others inspired by his ideas have done an excellent job of explaining the importance of finding your WHY.

But what I learned in Rwanda is that we must change the conversation and focus much more on the HOW. The question of HOW to encourage entrepreneurship and investments is far more challenging. And too often, the “WHY talk” delays that — much more important and difficult — discussion.

The WHY is Essential but Don’t Get Distracted

Of course, people and organizations (of any size and in any sector) must find their WHY.

The good news is that I meet more and more people who have a clear understanding of their WHY. Companies and other organizations are increasingly aware of their vision, purpose and beliefs.

Examples are “think different,” “connect people,” “making the world healthier,” “tell stories,” “make air travel accessible to everybody.”

But, what I experience more and more is that all this focus on the WHY means that the HOW gets neglected.

Even if you know the WHY, figuring out the HOW is not a simple task. This is particularly true in the world of fast-emerging technologies.

I have experienced the following mistakes.

  • People keep discussing the WHY and ignoring the HOW. I get it. “Big picture” WHY issues are much more fun to review and discuss. But, it usually becomes a convenient distraction. An inauthentic window-dressing exercise.
  • The WHY is clear, but people think that the HOW doesn’t need change. They believe that established processes and procedures will support their purpose. Business-as-usual continues to prevail.
  • The HOW is discussed and changes are introduced, but the principles and actions aren’t clearly explained (or they are misunderstood). Take open workspaces. They are designed to “de-silo” organizations and foster multidisciplinary collaboration. Also, they are supposed to offer flexibility to workers and help them find their WHY. The HOW has clearly changed, but the expected results (the WHAT) didn’t occur as intended. People tend to keep going back to the same old routine of going to the office between 8 AM and 5 PM and sit with their friends and direct colleagues. Changing the WHY first and then the HOW, changes nothing.

The result? A clearly articulated WHY doesn’t lead to what was expected. In fact, it usually doesn’t lead anywhere if we continue to neglect the HOW.

Indeed, the opposite usually happens. People get annoyed, frustrated, and start questioning the WHY.

In Kigali, one of the participants explained his decision to resign because his organization continued to neglect the HOW. “I found it frustrating and destructive. And things were unlikely to change. Quitting — and looking for something better — was preferable to sticking around and witnessing the inevitable failure.”

Start to Focus on the HOW!

Thinking about the HOW forces us to focus on details. “How do we do this? How do we get this done?”

Thinking about the WHY, tends to involve abstractions, visions or legacy. But focusing on the HOW is all about identifying practical measures that must be adopted to bring a project to fruition It is about process and actions.

And thinking about the HOW means that we don’t get too focused on the WHAT either.

We live in a fast-changing world where experimentation is the new normal. But this experimentation means being open about the direction of travel and being willing to pivot quickly and change paths. Clinging to a destination — the risk of focusing on a specific WHAT — is much less likely if you are focused on the process and not the goal.

Thinking about the HOW reveals how big consequences follow from the accumulation of minor choices. Small decisions can have serious effects. Thinking about the HOW makes us aware of these effects, whilst allowing us to keep an open mind.

It’s Time to Change the Conversation!

What I learned last week is that a focus on WHY isn’t sufficient to inspire and create movements anymore.

For instance, Rwanda’s WHY (attracting foreign investment for an innovative and sustainable future) was obvious to everybody. No disagreement here.

The HOW, on the other hand, led to a lot of discussion. How can we find a HOW that will be authentic and consistent with the WHY?

That is the real issue and getting smart about the future means starting that discussion as quickly as possible.

In the digital economy, the HOW revolves around three components:

  1. Organization
  2. Communication
  3. Engagement

It doesn’t matter if you are talking about a person, a business, or any other organization. A contemporary WHY will only be achieved if you think about how to organize, how to communicate, and how to engage with diverse stakeholders. It’s all about digitization (leveraging technology), co-creation (collaborating with others), and decentralization (re-thinking how things get organized).

Also, finding the HOW is a continual work-in-progress. Think of the HOW as an ecosystem. It is fluid, flexible, and constantly evolving. Flexibility is necessary and must be rewarded. Emerging technologies will continue to allow organizations to be flatter, communication to be more direct and personal, and engagement to be more informal.

Clearly, studying and understanding the HOW is essential in the digital economy where emerging technologies, such as blockchain, crypto, and artificial intelligence, can (or will) have a huge impact on HOW we do things and reach our WHYs in the future.

In a world where the only certainties are uncertainty and that we must “learn-by-doing,” process and how you do things becomes everything.