Simon Sinek has a famous TEDx talk and a book entitled Start With Why. In it he tells people to ask and answer the 'Why' question because it creates both meaning for individuals and coherence for a team and a project...
But then what?
There are thousands of kinds of questions to ask. What other questions could we and should we ask? And how are they related to one another? And is there a specific order we 'should' ask them in?
When you think about goals and projects as a system of step-by-step instructions, you can find the TYPE of question to ask at each step. We're going to divide a project into a few different stages. We're going to mix that with chopping the project into how it is arranged across space, time, and energy.
These distinctions will give us a map and a path so we ask the right question, in the right order.
I figured this out and embedded in my Imagine Create Execute program:
I use it to manage all of the stages of my projects. There are a few links coming up, but wait to click on those until after you finish this article. Due to a good bit of research, I found this same pattern happens in the software and information technology field, real estate, and in business and engineering.
Start with WHY- of course!
Our parents asked us why we did something even when we couldn't explain it. Boy was that frustrating. On top of probably doing something messy, wrong, or hurtful, then we had to justify the reason we did something. And of course, we were too young and living in the moment to have an memory and attention span to give a good answer!
But as young, middle-aged, and old adults, we know what we're doing. We know what we're intending. And we know what we're planning. And we can explain why we're intending, planning and doing those things.
The clearer we are about it, sometimes, the more excited we are to do these things. Or the more dread we have (see: filing taxes). Answering the question 'why' gives meaning and significance to our actions. It also makes everything we do to achieve that goal relevant. In some cases, it can inspire us or other people.
WHETHER: are the conditions optimal?
After we know why we should do something, we ask whether we should do it. The question 'whether' asks about the motivations we have inside our heads and hearts, and it asks about the realities and possibilities out in the world.
Building electric cars is a no-brainer because of both climate change and people want instant acceleration. When we have a situation that pairs positive internal motivations, and positive external effects, then we should do that thing. But, we are creatures with limited time and energy, so we have to choose between the good options we have available.
WHICH: what specific thing are we going to do?
Are you going to go to college or a trade school? Will you date this person or stay single? Will the company go after new business or focus on repeat clients? There are many options available to us at all times.
At some point, you have to decide exactly how you're going to spend your attention, time and energy. You have to choose which things you are going to do. And you decide which things you are not going to do. The word decide comes from Latin meaning 'to cut off' which means we cut ourselves off from the possibilities that we are not choosing.
If we're staying with the graphic, we've reached the end of the ideas stage. We've thought all of the thoughts, ideated all the ideas, and considered all of the designs. Now we ask are we going to do it or no. And if we are going to do it, how are we going to do it?
We plan! We create systems and tactics. You can't go from I'm hungry to eating. You need a system called a kitchen, and a tactic called cooking and a resource called food. When you mix those properly, then you have a meal.
WHENCE: how are we going to build this?
It's easy enough to go into a kitchen and cook food. It might take a while to find the food, knives, pans, plates, etc. if you're in a new kitchen. But what about if you don't have the ingredients? What if you don't have the utensils or the heating elements and fridge are broken? Even worse, what if they don't exist yet?
Entrepreneurs build businesses from literal nothing. We sit in our heads and figure I'm going to build X. Then we scour the earth for the suppliers, manufacturers, trainers, and all kinds of people and companies to help put our business systems together.
If you want a new house, you have to consider the system for making food called a kitchen. You also have to figure out the system for the food going out called a bathroom, unless you're cool with an outhouse. But does that go into a septic tank or a sewer line?
What rooms are in our house? How far apart are the stove from the fridge, and the toilet from the door? If you build software, what pages are on the website? What databases send what information to what parts of the page? And how do we build all of that? Do we use off-the-shelf parts, or do we get custom cabinets and software?
The question 'where' asks how we go from having nothing to what we have matching the intentions of our 'why', and the layout of our 'which'. Once we think like an engineer to figure that out, then we can figure out how we're going to get all of that to us so we can put our system together. And after we have our system set up, then we can do the real work. While this is exhausting to think about, we can't skimp on the details or we won't build our system, complete our projects and achieve our goals.
WHITHER: how do we get our resources aligned to build this?
Now that the engineer in us figured out everything we need to build our system and make our dreams come true, we have to figure out the schedule for that. How do we get raw materials into our workplace and workspaces so we can turn them into systems and whatever it is that we're creating (websites, food, businesses, etc).
At home, this is the master calendar that me and the wife negotiate about. Who can do what when. In business it's project managers and in real estate it's construction and property managers. All of these people and roles think about when things are happening.
You can't be in two places at the same time. You can be in two places one after another, or different places at the same time if you're two people.
If you've ever been a part of moving a family from one house to another, you see that there's literal tons of stuff that has to go from one place to another. But that pales in comparison to the tons of stuff that makes up the actual houses themselves!
You think writing a computer program or building a website is hard? Think about all of the work it took to make the computer you're typing on and the internet you're sending it over! At every single stage, someone had to think about getting everything the builder, developer, or manufacturer needed to make their products and services. Speaking of them, they're next.
WHAT: what are we building, installing, or customizing?
Builders, manufacturers, developers, and service providers. They construct and craft the systems that we use daily. I heard a joke that says software developers are a system that turn coffee into websites, that's funny and relevant. They take the intentions and answer to the designer's 'why', the architect's 'which', the engineer's 'whence', and the manager's 'whither' and the actual resources at-hand to build the systems we live, work, and play in. Boy was that a mouthful!
Clearly if you've come this far, you've been paying attention. You may have noticed the space-time-energy pattern holds true at both the idea and systems levels. Now we are going to watch it operate at the activities level.
Be mindful, you might have gotten a little mixed up about layers and levels based on the examples I was using. That's not because anything is wrong, but that things are complex. They're also embedded within one another.
For instance, a restaurant is a system for people to eat. The builder is called a chef or cook. But, the restaurant exists inside a building, whose builders are called a general contractor, plumber, plasterer, electrician etc. And the restaurant is the product of the architect building and drafting blueprints etc. It's kind of hairy. But when you realize that most businesses are both clients and suppliers, this gets a little clearer.
WHERE: where are the materials and supplies
Interior decorators help rich clients decide and choose colors, textures, fixtures, and other things in a building. For software, these folks are called designers and themers who pick fonts, colors, typography, pictures, backgrounds etc. These folks try to arrange what they get and have in a way that's both functional and pleasing to the eye.
Functional means that you can do the things you want. It's nice to have a closet, but if it's too small to fit all of your stuff... well. It will neither be functional nor pleasing to the eye. Not only will you dislike the stuff falling all over the place, you're not going to like the fact that it won't fit your stuff. So you're frustrated even if you throw or move half the stuff away. We don't want that.
The same goes for people who build websites, tools, cups, vacuums and provide services. Nobody wants useless ugly stuff.
WHEN: when do you need those supplies?
As we reach this stage, you start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Most of our decisions and choices have been made. Most of the suppliers are on-hand or on-their-way, and the only thing to do is finish what we started.
The when here is a physical when, compared to the abstract when of 'whither'. That abstract when thinks more about sequence, while this when refers to dates and times. The real abstract when 'whether' considers (sorry in advance) whether conditions are favorable for a project.
In business, we have the world of service delivery and logistics. We can pick up things from the store from 9-6 or 7-11. USPS drops mail off when they damn well please and we get our stuff we ordered from Alibaba when the ships and trains aren't backed up in a post-pandemic logistical nightmare. But Netflix movies are on-demand!
WHO: who's doing this?
Since it's our goal or project, maybe we're the only one to do it. But when we're working in a company, on a team, or in an organization, there are many people that can do the various things. Companies hire people, non-profits hire people and inspire volunteers to pitch in. Everyone has our Netflix password and
Is that it?
Yes and no. I'm sure you've learned a lot. You've started to see patterns and distinctions between these questions and the rows and columns of the grid that organize them.
If you are about to, in the middle of, or nearing completion of an important project ... then keep reading. If you need tools to help you organize and achieve your goals with this level of detail, then you should buy, download and practice using the workbook I created just for that: