What matters more than how – A Q&A with Rethink author Ric Merrifield


Many have written about the differences between urgency & importance, getting more of the right things done, and having a predetermined plan for success. But nobody had really explored the idea of how we work, vs. what we’re working on, the way Ric Merrifield did in his recent book Rethink.

In Rethink, Ric challenges us to stop doing what we’re told, and instead consider why it’s being done in the first place. By focusing on objectives, he says, much of what we actually do can be done in a very different way to more effectively & efficiently achieve results.

Here’s more on what vs. how from Ric:

What pushed you over the edge to write this book? What were you seeing that made it clear this message was necessary to get people back on the right track?
When I first started working in this area, I realized that it was a very simple way to translate business needs into technology specifications, which was why the initial focus was service-oriented architecture (SOA). But that always came off as a little too academic and people were skeptical. Then as the case studies started to take shape, I realized that we were aiming too low for success with this; it was much more than a way to translate business requirements, it is a new way to listen and communicate at the most basic level.

That’s why the people at the Harvard Business Review called it “The Next Revolution in Productivity” – it took them two years of sending me previous articles saying “explain how your ideas are different from these three articles” and that went on and on until one day they REALLY got it, and helped me put it into words that other people could really understand and digest. It was in the heavy editorial process from mid-February to mid-March of 2008 that I came up with the phrase the “how” trap and realized that it’s a human condition – we all fall into it (some more than others) at home and at work, and that was really the moment I knew it was a useful enough message to put in book form, with enough method and examples to get people started.

How do organizations fall into the “how” trap in the first place? What are the signs executives can look for to know they need to make a change?
In a lot of cases I think people assume that when they take a job that the previous person in their job was probably not an idiot, so they assume the work flow and steps that have always been done are probably good ones. They tend not to push back and ask the “why can’t we do it this way?” kinds of questions.

Why can’t we have passengers check themselves in for a flight? Why can’t we only allow our bank customers to write online checks (as ING DIRECT did, which eliminated overdrafts, which eliminated the entire department for dealing with bad checks)? Why can’t we turn our backs on some customer segments that make us less profitable if we give in to their demands (Eclipse Aviation)? Why can’t we eliminate stores and late fees in the video rental business (Netflix)? Why can’t we choose to not make a profit on the products we sell (Costco makes their profits from their membership dues)? Of course it goes on and on, but the point is to be really specific about the outcome you are chasing after, the “what” you are doing at a macro level and at a micro level, and then you can ask, are there options for “how” we go about it.

There’s a ton of value in just focusing on execution to get things done and deliver results. How do you effectively balance focused execution, the how, with maintaining a strategic focus and reason for the work?
That’s a great question. One of the signs that people need to take a step back and rethink their work is when they feel as though they are constantly “too busy chopping wood to stop and sharpen their axe.” Sometimes it’s literally just that there’s too much work and not enough people, but often not. And especially now that times are tough, people should really be asking what is and isn’t really valuable to their success.

What are some tactical best practices you’ve found for staying focused on the right work, day to day? What are the tools your best individual examples are using?
I have found that once you get in the habit of separating the what’s from the how’s, it just becomes a habit. One key is when someone is describing their work, listening for the “how” verbs like fax, ship, e-mail, etc. there’s a good chance the person talking is in a “how” trap. Taking the fax example, when someone sends a fax, the “what” is communicating the status of something, or confirming (or denying) something, but when often when you walk up to someone at the fax machine and ask them what they are doing they will say something like “I am faxing the J327 form” If you say “why don’t you just e-mail it?” or something along those lines, you are challenging, even threatening, their decision about their work, whereas when you say, “OK, the J327 is an order confirmation, so you are confirming an order, and ‘how’ you are doing it is with the fax, if you could perform that same order confirmation in some other way that would save you time, would that be OK?” that’s a much cleaner, less threatening way to have the conversation, and you have started the person thinking in terms of what’s and how’s.

What’s the implication here for cross-departmental work, specifically for how sales & marketing organizations work together?
These ideas are very powerful at helping to break down silos and get to a more common language. We see piles of repetition, especially in big organizations because each department uses different terminology and acronyms than others, which often mask the similarity or synergy in the work. There are lots of case studies of this in the book and in the Harvard Business Review article, that highlight how the language of process, which is often very subjective because it contains so many “how” verbs, actually preserves some of the departmental language specifics and keeps opportunities masked.

Learn more about Rethink here.