What? Why? How? Answering Essential Questions in Your Organization

Organizational documentation takes many forms: mission statements, vision statements, strategic plans, policies, procedures, process maps, project plans. How do these disparate documents relate to one another?

I find it fruitful to categorize documentation as answers to the basic questions of “what?”, “why?”, and “how?” when asked at a particular level of abstraction within the context of an organization. This article explores the relationship among that triad of questions and to the different types of organizational documentation.

A Recursive Hierarchy

Taken together on a particular topic of inquiry, the questions “what”, “why”, and “how” can be seen to have a hierarchical relationship to one another.


To see this relationship clearly, let’s take an example. Pick a topic of organizational concern, such as your work for today. We’ll call this concern the Current Topic of inquiry. It is the answer to the “what” question in this triad. (Q: “What is my current work?” A: “Rejigger the thingamajig.”)

When asked of the “what” of the current topic of inquiry, the answer to the question “why” (Q: “Why am I to rejigger the thingamajig?” A: “In order to get the whatchamacallit production line working.”) provides the contextually appropriate higher level motivating purpose or final cause of the “what”, whereas the answer to the question “how” (Q: “How am I to rejigger the thingamajig?” A: “Insert tab A into slot B.”) provides the contextually appropriate lower level causal sequence or efficient cause of the given “what”.

Taken as a unit, these triads of question and answer pairings also generate a recursive hierarchy. That is, we can move the Current Topic pointer to the “how” answer in our previous example (“Insert tab A into slot B”), making it the “what” of our current inquiry, and then ask the same questions. This time, the “why” for our new “what” will be the answer to our previous “what” (“To rejigger the thingamajig.”), and the new “how” will be an even more granular description of the work instructions (“Grasp tab A with your left hand. Grasp slot B with your right hand. Move your left hand toward your right carefully until tab A nestles into slot B.”) Likewise, we can move the Current Topic pointer to the “why” answer in our first example (“get the whatchamacallit production line working.”) to make it the “what” of a new inquiry and then ask the same questions again. The “how” of this third iteration will be our previous “what” (“Rejigger the thingamajig.”) and a new “why” will be generated (“To manufacture watchamacallits.”)

To put it alternately, in a teleological hierarchy (one of goals, purposes, objectives, targets, …), this triad of questions are generically answered as follows:

Question Answer
What am I to do? the current goal in the hierarchy
Why am I to do this? the parent, or next goal up, in the hierarchy,
How am I to do this? the children, or next goals down, in the hierarchy

This recursive analysis may in principle be repeated indefinitely. Within a given domain of inquiry, however, the analysis will at some point cease to be useful and reach a stop in both the upward and downward directions. In the organizational context, it will ground out at a base-level “how” describing work in physical actions that can be directly executed by employees and which carry the activity of the organization forward (and typically long before such specificity is documented). In the same organizational context on the ascending side, it will eventually stop at the “why” which references direct contribution toward the organization’s mission. From a process perspective, these two upper and lower terminals define the boundaries of the system that is the organization in question.

Three Levels of Organizational Documentation

While this recursive analysis may be applied at fine granularity, as in the previous example which analyzed part of a given process (“thingamajig rejiggering”), its procedural steps, and associated detailed work instructions, it may also be applied at a coarser resolution to gain clarity on how different types of typical organizational documentation related to one another. Viewed from the fixed perspective of an organization as a whole, we might categorize organizational documentation into three categories establishing organizational Identity, Strategy, and Execution, corresponding to the answers to Why, What, and How within a given organization.


Identity

In any given triad or recursive hierarchy of triads, the top level “why” has no "why" answer within the current context. As the initial example showed, to answer “why” for the current “why” requires another recursive application of the triad, moving the current inquiry pointer to the current top-level “why”, making it the new “what”.

At the boundary of an organization, the “why” answer lies outside the organization and comes from the purposes of the societal system in which the current goal hierarchy is contained. Organizational mission statements, which frequently reference contribution to fulfilling the needs of the society in which the organization is embedded, are an expression of that meta-level purpose within the current organizational context.

Strategy

The organization’s “why”, expressed in its mission/purpose and vision, and constrained by its values and principles, are translated into a business model and broad objectives and associated key performance indicators at the “what” level to generate a strategy.

Execution

The strategic “what” becomes an executable “how” when each business model component and strategic objective is broken down into time-bounded initiatives (projects) and ongoing operations (processes). Each of these elements is susceptible to the same recursive analysis. For example, process descriptions may be taken as a “why” and decomposed into procedures specifying “what” work to do, which may in turn be decomposed into detailed work instructions that specify exactly “how” to do that work.

Significance

Why is this important? Because far too often, we neglect either the “why” or the “how”. In striving to accomplish the “what” of our work, these contextual considerations easily fall out of focus. When the “how” is neglected, we inevitably encounter avoidable error, costly rework, and missed deadlines resulting from poor process and inadequate planning. When the “why” is neglected, we find loss of motivation, poor morale, and petty politics deriving from the dearth of meaning in the mere accomplishment of the “what” of our work.


How do you keep the "why" and "how" aligned with the "what" of work in your organization? Leave your tips in the comments section below.

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