Look beyond WHAT to do: WHY and HOW lead to WHO


This is a blog post that I have long postponed but its core is – I think – really important: we tend to focus too much on the job we need to get done. In the process, we tend to overlook  why we need to get it done and how we mean to do it. But most importantly, we do not pay enough attention to who we are working with.

In development work, we end up working with a lot of other people and organisations. These partners have potentially a vastly different approach to life due to their family, ethnic, organisational, functional, spiritual and personal background. Their way of perceiving the world is not necessarily ours. That same ‘baggage’ means they potentially have a vastly different experience and skillset. They may not have followed a similar form of education and carried out a similar set of tasks. They may think and do things just differently.

Why is it then, that in development work – and perhaps otherwise too – we are led to think that we should focus on just doing the job, regardless of who we are and who we are with? How come the WHAT (we have to do) takes precedence over anything else? If development were to be more effective, I think it could benefit from paying at least as much attention to other aspects: WHY, HOW and ultimately WHO.

Typically, a development project will be led by an agency that has a specific way to work and a specific set of concepts they like to work with. But they often fail to share their deep assumptions about these concepts and thereby to forget about the WHY.

Under WHY, we should indeed chart the assumptions we have about a specific initiative and the central approaches and concepts that we think are helpful. We should revisit the project proposal and question our logic, at least properly together with the partners, so that we know what we are doing this for. When I did some DIY with my father when I was 7 or 8 and he would just tell me to ‘bring this wooden panel’ or ‘hold that piece of metal’, I wouldn’t really get it and I generally found the experience frustrating and really boring. When he would explain me why we were assembling the pieces together in this way to improve thermal isolation or to have a better tool cabinet, all of a sudden the picture would emerge in my mind and I would be keen on seeing our work come to life!

Tree & forest (Amandabhslater)

Are we not mistaking the tree for the forest? (Photo credits: Amandabhslater on FlickR)

At work also, by focusing on the activities we have to undertake and outputs we have to deliver, we miss the passion and energy of the bigger picture. And we also miss an essential opportunity to appreciate the world view of our partners, how their concepts hang together, why they think the initiative matters and why they are part of it. But also what they think about our concepts and assumptions. In the process a lot of essential insights may also emerge that prevent later failures.

But it doesn’t stop here. In focusing on the WHAT, we also often fail to address HOW we work. Of course project proposals specify how activities should be carried out and how they lead to the results, but we do not question enough the capacities and specific ways to undertake these activities: Does everyone involved know how to use Excel’s main and more advanced functions? Is everyone clear on what it takes to give a presentation? What type, scope, length of reports are we favouring and why? Can everyone speak English at the same level? Is everyone comfortable with using a wiki? What would it take to have everyone share their stories of change on a bi-yearly basis? Is the connectivity as expected in all partner offices? How often should we get in contact to share management updates, using what channel and why?

If capacities are assumed, we run the risk of not understanding why delays may occur, some of them just due to the necessary trial-and-error process that a less experienced person has to make do with. If capacities are assumed, it may become more difficult to reveal to each other where our weaknesses are and to recognise that we have a golden opportunity to bridge those gaps and to help each other, building the team. So behind the HOW comes a big WHO question…

Now, that looks like a bleak picture. In reality, work usually gets done. Despite not having jointly explored our (and our partners’) deep assumptions, respective fields of experience and skillsets, we cope and we deliver. But in the process we may misunderstand each other, get upset, get hurt. And more often than not we don’t have enough time to reflect and find better solutions on the spot. for the issues and for ailing relationships. In the meantime, underlying assumptions remain wrong and some partners just play the game of delivering, as sub-contractors, not as partners, without having bought into the rationale behind some activities – because that rationale was never made explicit enough. They disengage, when instead they could have built a stronger tie, through the real team effort of explorin g our world together.

In the end, there are two types of people: those that categorise people and those that don’t (lol)! But there are also people that focus on the results and people that focus on relationships. We probably need to focus on both, but over time, while work wanes, relationships remain. WHO is with you in this? And why do you want to do something with them? Isn’t this a key to development?

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