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How Leaders Solve Problems by Asking Why? and How?

how leaders solve problemsSome of us start by asking "How?" Others start with "Why?" But this is the blueprint that works best. It's how leaders solve problems: asking BOTH "Why?" and "How?"

For each us, part of this comes naturally, without forethought. Our way of looking at the world isn’t something we typically question. It just is. We accept it and expect that others will do the same. In fact, we may go so far as to think that others are “wrong” and we are “right” in the way we look at the world.

It's Not Either/Or. It's Both. That's How Leaders Solve Problems. They Ask Both Questions.

Have you ever noticed that some people are always looking at “why?” When a problem occurs, they want to know the root cause. They focus on getting to the bottom on things, to diagnosing the problem. They primarily look backwards to track what led to the problem. This can be productive and helpful when it prevents the same problem from recurring. It can also be unproductive and even destructive when it turns into a pursuit of blame and shame.

Or maybe you’ve noticed that some people always seem to be looking at “how.” For them, when a problem presents itself, they start looking at alternatives. They want to know how to fix it, how to spin it into something different, or how to troubleshoot for next time. They tend to be looking forward, anticipating the outcomes and looking for ways to manage them. This can be productive and helpful when it works to make lemonade out of lemons. It can also be unproductive and even destructive when it ignores the diagnostic work needed in the here and now.

Asking both "Why?" and "How?" in appropriate measure is how leaders solve problems.

When faced with a problem, which are you more likely to ask first – "Why?" or "How?"

I find that knowing this about myself has been helpful, particularly when I listen to questions asked by someone I am collaborating with. If we both go straight into "How?" mode, we may miss out on some diagnostic work that needs to be done. We can also miss out on informing others about early process steps that need to be remedied or reconsidered. We just plow ahead, fixing it for next time.

On the other hand, if I go into "How?" questions when working with a "Why?" oriented person, we might as well be speaking different languages. We can easily get stuck going two very different directions. I’ll be asking questions like “How should we proceed?” and my co-collaborator will be asking “Why didn’t this work?” Both questions have merit. I can make a well-reasoned case for either of them, and I can understand that each of us is naturally inclined to pursue the question path that we usually do… But there is no good in getting stuck, so one of us has to yield.

When I yield, I do it with great trepidation. First, because the "Why?" questions sometimes involve finger-pointing, a practice I try to avoid at all times. I am fine with “a problem happened, now let’s move forward.” I don’t need to know who did what wrong. At least not now. I like to have things back on track before I worry about such things, if I do at all. The second reservation I have about yielding is that I don’t want to waste time. Sometimes, looking backward and lamenting what is in the past (the one thing we cannot change!), takes more time than I feel it is worth. I get frustrated by what seems like analysis paralysis to me.

Given my druthers, I’d make a dozen attempts and finally get it right vs. taking time to analyze the first failed attempt at something. I now know that this drives some people crazy. They think I am taking unnecessary risks, that I am the one wasting time, that without logical analysis and diagnosis my efforts are all going to be in vain.

Neither of us is right, at least not all of the time. Sometimes, it is appropriate to slow down and look backwards before proceeding. Other times, plunging ahead and leaving the past behind is the better strategy. The trick is in knowing how to use both approaches. That's how leaders solve problems! Or at least in accepting that there are two approaches, and the one you prefer isn’t always the best choice. Respecting that others have an alternate point of view makes each one of us more effective in problem solving, collaborating and connecting.

Next time you are faced with a problem, pay attention to the kinds of questions you ask.

Are they predominantly "Why?" or "How?" questions? Who around you is asking the other type? That person is someone who can counter-balance your perspective, someone who may drive you crazy at the very same time they are the best partner you could ever wish for. After you’ve gained this self-awareness and found this foil to balance your perspective, try this stretch exercise: Stop asking your preferred question and force yourself to ask the other one. If you are, like me, someone who tends to ask "How?" force yourself to ask "Why?" You’ll learn even more about yourself in this exercise and will come to appreciate others’ perspectives differently, too.

Not only that, you'll do a better job. You'll be more effective. By knowing how leaders solve problems by asking both "Why" and "How," you are now better equipped for tackling even the toughest challenges.

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(Editor's Note: This blog was originally published in March 2016 and was recently updated.)

Topics: leadership effectiveness, problem-solving

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