The other day I read Shoedog, a memoir by Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. Phil talked about some of leadership philosophy and it struck a chord.
“Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.”
― Phil Knight (original quote by George S Patton)
Knight told his people what to do without telling them how to do it. From this management philosophy, Nike was born. The "what" instead of "how " philosophy applies not just to shoes companies but really any organization.
In the field of IT this advice seems particularly relevant. Some projects stall out because a leader has no what but they are enamored by the how. They throw out terms like big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence as if they are goal themselves. But they are not. Big data, machine learning and AI are implementation details, or rather they are means to some end. An example what might be to reduce project accidents by 15% and the how would be to classify high risk projects with a machine learning model.
So why do some leaders substitute a word salad for a strategy? Numerous reasons exists but I suspect a lot of the time leaders substitute what for how when they can't articulate their goals. A simple solution exists for leaders possessed by ambiguous goals - write them down. There's no difference between writing and thinking.
When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner's pick, a woodcarver's gouge, a surgeon's probe. You wield it, and it digs a path you follow. Soon you find yourself in deep new territory... The writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool. (Dillard 1989, p. 3)
-Annie Dillard The Writing Life