Why > What > How

There are three levels of direction you can give someone:

Level 1: WHY

Telling someone why something needs to be done at all. Most often overlooked, telling someone WHY provides a critical foundation for someone else to understand your ask. All solutions presented should answer the WHY.

Without understanding WHY something needs to be done, odds increase considerably that the person will fail to achieve your desired objective regardless of what you tell him or her to do. Lack of common purpose results in unmotivated or unfocused solutions that will surely miss the mark. If someone fails to understand WHY you’re asking them to do something, that’s ultimately your fault and you deserve whatever outcome.

Level 2: WHAT

Telling someone WHAT you want him or her to do. Giving someone a general solution to the problem you identified. In many cases, the WHAT may seem pretty obvious to you: website, report, service, deliverable, etc.

Without the WHAT, you give the person the freedom to solve for the WHY and open even more doors to solutions. While in most cases, this can be too unfocused, who knows? Perhaps the best solution to the problem you identified has nothing to do with the solution you think most obvious.

Level 3: HOW

Telling someone exactly HOW you want him or her to do the WHAT you want him or her to do. What the solution looks like exactly. The design, the format, the content, the structure…the look and feel and function you expect to get back from giving direction in the first place.

HOW is where the real creativity comes in for the person doing the work. Telling someone HOW diffuses creativity. Worse, it risks stifling other ideas from them that might serve you better than your own (especially true when you’re working with experienced professionals). At all costs, try not to tell someone HOW until you absolutely have to. If you’re not satisfied with the HOW, ask yourself whether the WHAT solves the WHY. If it doesn’t, your problem lies in the WHAT or the WHY. If the WHAT does solve the WHY and you’re unsatisfied with the HOW, odds are pretty good your problem still lies in the WHAT or WHY. If you can’t offer someone constructive feedback to condition the HOW you’re looking for, only then can you stood to telling someone HOW to do their job.

Without the HOW, you give the person the freedom to realize the WHAT and / or WHY in any way they see fit. You open more doors to ideas and mitigate your risk. You empower the professional to explore and solve, thereby offering greater autonomy and can expect much better results (assuming you clearly outlined the WHY and, if necessary, a WHAT).

If you provide someone with no context as to WHY or WHAT you’re asking them to build, well, good luck. It makes my head hurt to imagine anyone telling me what to do every step of the way without telling me WHAT I’m working on or WHY I’m doing it.