Executive Decisions: Using the ‘What’ and ‘How’ Method to Lead


Making decisions can be a vexing experience. It seems that no matter the enterprise, decisions ignite conflict, arguments, and hurt feelings. But often it is not what the decision is but how it is executed that causes problems.

Now, for fun, let’s look at a few examples.

  • The Affordable Care Act. The Affordable Care Act passed in 2010 has been in the news ever since. Part of this Byzantine piece of legislation was the creation of a National Health Insurance Exchange that began accepting enrollees in January 2014.As you recall, the roll-out of The Affordable Care Act did not come off well (to put it mildly). Those enrollees who were “promised” they could keep their doctor found they couldn’t; those who were going to “save” money didn’t; those who qualified couldn’t register very easily or at all, and the issues went on.

    So was the issue about having affordable healthcare or was it in how the act was implemented? After studying the amount of money America spends on health care and the quality of outcomes compared with other industrial nations, we are by far at the top in terms of expense and near the bottom for quality outcomes. So the “what” or the subject matter of needing to address our healthcare system is likely not the problem but how we deliver that health care certainly is.

  • Border control. Prior to March 2003, there were numerous departments who helped control the border. The main purpose initially was to ensure the laws were upheld in terms of immigration and entrance into the United States. Then came 2001 and a new department was created, the Customs and Border Protection, to keep America safe from terrorists. Maintaining federal law and protection of United States citizens is a good “what”. But the “how” it is executed becomes the source of political debate. Many argue why more isn’t done to protect the borders or criticize the methods with border control. It is all in “how” borders are protected that seems to be the issue, not that they need to be protected.
  • Flu vaccines. Each year people flood to clinics and pharmacies to receive an annual flu shot in hope that the shot prevents the unwanted virus. The Center for Disease Control recommends the flu shot, particularly for children and people over 65. People who receive the shot can still get the flu and this year, the effectiveness is about 23 percent. Wanting to protect the community from spreading disease is an admirable “what”, but “how” prevention is handled is of concern. Because production of the vaccine occurs prior to knowing exactly what virus will be prevalent in the next year, it is difficult to accurately project its effectiveness.
  • Moving an organization’s headquarters to a less expensive state or even out of the country has become part of the political dialogue. Executives justify their actions by blaming the high tax rate in a state or the country compared to other places in the world, such as the Cayman Islands or Ireland that are more “business friendly”. The “what”, keeping the business afloat by having reasonable costs, would be a wise focus for any business. The “how” to keep costs low can be of question.

When the “what” of an issue is clearly defined, the “how” crystallizes as well. So how do executives begin to shift to concentrating purposefully on the “what” to ensure a better “how” in solving problems?

Here are four considerations to focus on the “what” of a problem:

  1. Be honest when you have an issue arise–get to the root cause. What really caused the problem? If it is a financial problem, is it repetitive for the organization? Do you always deal with an issue the same way over time? If so, has the solution worked in the past? Is it a management issue? Do you take the easy way out when it is a financial problem? For example implementing layoffs versus dealing with the people or having appropriate processes in place to manage your spending real time so a financial downturn is predicted and layoffs prevented.
  2. Solve the real problem. If you don’t pay attention to the root cause, you won’t solve the real problem. Understand the cause and then you can come up with creative solutions that are more proactive instead of reactionary.
  3. Articulate, expect, and develop good habits in you and your leaders to manage resources and income effectively. To do this requires real-time management every day in order to avoid surprises where there is a tendency to overreact to fix a problem.
  4. This is probably the best tool, particularly if we become adept at looking at patterns and trends over time within the organization. As creatures of habit, we usually apply the same methods to fix a problem and sometimes don’t recognize its repetitive nature. This habit combined with being proactive may well fend off repetitive problems that don’t seem to have a solution.

Focusing on the “what” doesn’t imply that there is an easy solution to every problem. It does concentrate on the importance of determining the real cause of the problem and helps provide a roadmap for how to fix and move beyond it.

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