As a bit of self-congratulations, this is my 400th post. I've been blogging now for about two and a half years, and I've found it to be a great way to meet people, explore ideas and think about the way things work.
Which is what led me to the subject du jour - whether it's more important to know what to do, and not understand the "why", or if it's more important to understand the "why" without process clarity. I'm going to stipulate that I think it's more important to know the "what" in very transactional processes and events, and to know the "why" otherwise.
If you know "what" to do, then there's a sense that a process or rationale has been developed. Understanding what to do is helpful when your firm desires quick, repetitive work with little variation. This assumes that risks are low and that what's ultimately necessary is throughput. In fact, the more you know "what" to do in many cases, the assumption is the less you need to know the "why". Think about it - most purely transactional workers rarely understand the strategic impact or importance of what they do. They aren't expected to know that, and I suspect that their management teams aren't overly interested in letting them know.
On the other hand, if the processes aren't well defined, or the work is dangerous or risky, then knowing "why" you are doing a specific task is more important. Understanding the ultimate goal when you are called on to do something that is poorly defined is probably the more important information you can have, since you'll be inventing the process as you go, and it's up to you to figure out what the best approach or method will be.
Clearly, the optimal situation is one where each individual knows what to do and why they are doing it. Yet in most firms where I've worked or consulted, the "what" is often uncertain and the "why" is often virtually unknown or unknowable. This is a significant breakdown in management. In any situation a management team should be able to provide either a clear "what" or a clear "why" to the people that work for them. If a management team can't provide that, what value do they add?
While it's an imperfect metaphor, people need to know the "what" for transactional work and the "why" for tasks and actions that aren't well defined or require the worker to determine the appropriate approach. The best of all worlds is when they know both.