“How” And “Why” Trump “What”

how and why trump what

He who has a why to live
can bear almost any how.
— Friedrich Nietzsche


I have spent much of my professional life analyzing the WHAT –

  • What does this company do? 
  • What will the results be? 
  • What is the impact of this business in the world? 
  • What would make this a good investment?


Last year I was struck by Simon Sinek’s TED talk (see link below), a wonderful synthesis of all the reasons to focus on WHY – he notes that feeling and connection to mission are deeply rooted in biology and decision-making, not a fluffy side issue.

  • Why do you do what you do?
  • Why does your organization exist?
  • Why do YOU?

This aligned with so many of my studies in divinity school and sustainable investing – I was sold, ready to re-focus on mission and meaning in a more consistent and thoughtful way.  Instead of keeping WHY off to the side, I increased my focus on explicitly integrating it into my analytical and decision-making processes.  Don’t get me wrong, I still used all of those WHATS – but combined them with the more powerful WHYS.


But something important was missing – the vital link between WHAT and WHY.

Lately I have been reminded of the importance of HOW.  I’ve just returned from visiting some social-benefit, for-profit enterprises in East Africa, and the trip included visits to two different agricultural businesses.  Both were processing facilities, both were providing consistent markets to farmers in areas where there might otherwise be none, both were responsibly managed with solid business plans.  But one enterprise was owned by a single proprietor from another country, while the second was cooperatively owned by local farmers.  In the first instance, farmers were asking questions like “what will the price be for our crops this year?” and “can you supply us with more tools?” and “are you sure you will not leave this area like that tobacco company did?”  In the second instance, the cooperative, farmers were telling us about the business, questioning managers of the processing plant, checking the weights on their own harvests, and explaining how investments in the business had improved results.

On paper these enterprises looked pretty similar – the WHATS and even the WHYS were aligned.  But the different structures of these businesses – the HOW – created a huge difference in their overall impact, and I believe this will influence the long term potential of the businesses as well.  So from now on, I am adding HOW to my decision-making sandwich – right in-between the WHY and the WHAT.

TED talk Simon Sinek – WHY

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