Forget how — ask what

Figuring out what to do — what I like to call "picking a direction to walk" — always has to come before figuring out how we get there.

white paper airplane on yellow background

More than 2300 years ago, Aristotle mused that that art is about making, and that the question of what one should make is always more important than the question of how to make it. It's very old advice, but we seldom follow it.

In the intellectual space, though, it has endured. Albert Einstein promoted the idea that problem-solving is much more about understanding the problem than it is about formulating the solution:

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.

At The Right Box, we often use this phraseology from management consultant Peter Drucker:

Effectiveness is the foundation of success - efficiency is a minimum condition for survival after success has been achieved.

If that doesn't seem directly connected, consider these simple definitions: effectiveness is the question of finding the best what, while efficiency is finding the best how. There's no point in finding the best how if we haven't found the best what yet.

We've even talked about it here before.

To be clear, it's not that "how" isn't a good question. Quite the opposite — it's a fantastic question. But, as my friend Kirk Wayman likes to say, "how" is like the sixth player on an NBA team — pretty damn good, but not a starter.

That's because figuring out what to do — what I like to call "picking a direction to walk" — always has to come before figuring out how we get there. Software engineers often quip that "premature optimisation is the root of all evil", which I find apropos. It's the idea that it doesn't matter if what you do is an inefficient means to an end if it's not the right end in the first place, or if the cost of such optimisation is greater than the reward one will see by achieving it. It's the deathknell of a fruitless effort: stop focusing on the wrong things at the wrong time.

So why does this age-old, sage advice keep finding its way back into the popular consciousness in different ways? Why do we find it so hard to follow?

Perhaps because it feels to against the advice hammered into us by our parents: if something is worth doing, it's worth doing well; always do your best; you never get a second chance to make a first impression; and so forth.

In some sense, creating an MVP is intentionally doing something a bit half-assed. We'll put out a product or video or the first version of a marketing website, knowing full well it's imperfect: it's missing features; it's buggy; it's not aesthetically up to our standards. It's a little embarrassing, frankly.

However, it is the right and laudable approach, because we are operating on imperfect information at the time. We actually don't know what the right thing to do is yet, though we have an hypothesis. In fact, it's just bad business to dump a bunch of resources into what, often, is little more than a hunch. Instead, we find controlled, small ways of testing things to find out if we're on the right path. Those tests are as small as they can be - but never smaller. We pivot along the way. And, once we're confident we're walking in the right direction, we can spend time getting more efficient in our journey.

Or, as LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman put it:

If you're not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you've launched too late.

Published almost 2 years ago

Josh David Miller

Josh David Miller

Managing Director // The Right Box

JDM is the founder of The Right Box, where he facilitates the process of innovation with startups and Fortune 100s alike. He and his team help get new ventures to market, innovate on business models, and establish a culture of intrapreneurship. JDM spends his free time as a startup ecosystem builder, connecting founders and funders in the Sacramento area — where is known as that guy wearing unusually colourful shoes.

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