I’m a fan of Simon Sinek. Mostly this stems from the degree to which the ideas he champions resonate with me on so many levels. I’m cautious not to say that we’re aligned; we’ve never met, but regardless of this minor inconvenience, I like to think we are generally pointing in the same direction.
One of his most popular books is ‘Start with Why’. I like the approach he discusses in its pages as it implicitly advocates individual respect particularly in relation to leading people. Blind obedience should not be expected from anybody; at a minimum leaders should feel an obligation to articulate why they are pointing people in a particular direction and by extension why those people should follow them.
Start With Why
I’m not going to parrot Simon’s work, you should just read it. The takeaway for me is a reinforcement of the idea of setting a higher vision to act as an umbrella (or safety net depending on your perspective) for what you and your team are doing. There are always many avenues to solving problems or achieving business goals, but when you have established a context for those avenues, then the chances of actually achieving what was intended and desired increases dramatically.
From an entrepreneurial or innovation perspective this notion is perfect. The mantra of all entrepreneurs is ‘find a problem worth solving’. The corollary to that is ‘there are many ways to solve the problem’ which if course where the innovators and design thinkers start to get excited. The problem you are solving is your ‘Why’. Once you know why you are solving the problem, then you can better appreciate the profusion of options available to you. Finding like minded people to work with you similarly becomes easier as you’re already thinking the same way even if you’re not yet speaking the same language.
But its application is much wider than that.
Applying ‘Why’ Thinking
It would be all too easy to think that this approach is not necessarily relevant to your team, or that you aren’t on an entrepreneurial journey, but I would encourage you to challenge your thinking.
Whether you’re running a fantastically creative and innovative team or one that has clearly prescribed, controlled and repeatable work the essence of the human condition doesn’t change. Inevitably the question ‘why am I here and why am I doing this’ is ever present and the scope of that question ranges from the existential to a day in the office.
If you are a leader then your role is to motivate the people you are leading to achieve the goals of your organisation. It is up to you to coach your people to find their value in the work that they are doing to allow them to continue to be motivated.
As I said previously, the ‘Why’ can be a safety net. As you grow, shrink, adapt and progress on your organisation’s journey you will undoubtedly encounter situations that are new and challenging. Situations where you don’t actually have a plan and don’t have an immediate response to hand. It is in these situations that you’re ‘Why’ comes charging to the rescue to guide your thinking and planning.
Finding the Right Level of Why
Not all ‘Whys’ are equal, and finding the right why at the right level is important. Keep in mind that metrics and project goals are not the ‘Why’ you are looking for.
‘Why am I answering the phone?’
‘Because we have an SLA that says we’ll answer in under thirty seconds’
Not the most inspring or motivating ‘Why’ is it?
But it can be difficult to get to a why if you didn’t start there. The classic exercise of ‘5 Whys’ might help.
- Why am I answering the phone?
Because we have an SLA that says we’ll answer the phone in under 30 seconds – POOR
- Why do we have an SLA?
Because we want our customers to appreciate that we actually care about giving them good service – IMPROVEMENT
- Why do we want them to appreciate that we care?
Because we want our customers to be happy, and happy customers are loyal customers – CLARITY
- Why do we want loyal customers?
Because loyal customers will stick with us as we go on our journey to achieve our goal – GOOD, BUT BE CAREFUL
Many companies get to this point and mistake their goal. ‘To make money’ or as its often spruced up ‘To increase shareholder value’ as a ‘Why’ level goal. Think about this for a second, if you really have a mission to solely make money, then you’re destined to never achieve your goal because your goal is to be in a rat race. Was that really what you wanted or intended for yourself? Did you really mean to limit yourself in this way?
- Why do we want our customers to stick with us?
Because we’re on a mission to create something / change something / improve something / contribute something / make a better world (this is your actual ‘Why’). During the course of reaching for this we’re going to make mistakes. From those mistakes we’ll learn, but we don’t want to lose our customers while we’re learning.
‘5 Whys’ gives us a path for connecting the work of an individual to the trajectory of the organisation. We should all be using this more often.
The Impact of Discovering Why
The power of ‘Why’ lies in its simplicity. It allows people to connect with the core values of the organisation and to commit to those values. This opt-in is an exceptionally strong motivator for people. Rather than relying on an outside factor to motivate or drive them, they are discovering a reason to motivate themselves.
As a leader, your job also becomes easier. Now your job is to create a framework that allows these self-motivated people to operate. You can focus on the desired outcomes and behaviours and have your team fall in line, or challenge for a better way. Either way you are having a substantially more collaborative approach to meeting your desired outcomes. As the design thinking people say, you are co-creating the solution rather than simply dictating.
Utopia, Rainbows and Unicorns
Well that all sounds fantastic but rest assured, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. To my own ideas of respect and alignment Simon has offered rich and thought provoking material to help shape and feed my thinking. I’ve encountered two main challenges that result from this particular phase of the leadership journey.
The Magic of Opt-in
‘Why’ thinking offers tools to help you start with clarity of your mission and purpose, or to develop and explore it if not already in place. This clarity, and the resulting opt-in from people as I previously mentioned is nothing short of breath-taking to watch in action. Call it flow, call it 10x, call it autonomy – really you can call it what you like, but a group of people with clarity of mission and purpose start to perform at an almost telepathic level. They tend to arrive at more innovative solutions and do so in a more collaborative way; as a leader you get to stand back and watch the magic. Who wouldn’t want that?
The people who don’t buy in to those values – that’s who.
Having achieved clarity you will inevitably also discover people who determine that your ‘Why’ isn’t their ‘Why’. You may be trying to recruit them, or have already done so and are only now clarifying what your ‘Why’ is. It’s not that they’re wrong, or that you’re wrong, you just don’t share the same values – welcome to the human race.
Referring back to the core value of respect for the individual, allowing this situation to continue unexplored is simply ignoring a problem that is likely manifesting itself in a number of ways including, but not limited to: poor performance, poor communication, constant debate – maybe even outright arguments, disappointing outputs and all the way out to stress for everyone. Perhaps you now have an insight into some causes, which means you also now have an opportunity to address them, which you must if you are sincere in your respect for the individual.
The Shifting Why
So you read the book, or watched the videos or maybe you just stuck with one of the shorter videos and decided that you’ve ‘got it’ and moved on to establish a ‘Why’ for everything…
But then there’s a debate on the ‘Why’, and you’re less convinced, so you shift. But now there’s some who liked the first ‘Why’, so you start to spin and spin – and all that spinning is creating just the one thing: confusion. There’s only one reason for this: you took the lazy path; you didn’t do your job.
Finding a ‘Why’ isn’t a click of the fingers type of exercise. You’re going to have to openly explore it and that will take some intensive work. Even if you are in an organisation where it has a clear and strong understanding of its ‘Why’, you as a leader at whatever level will need to examine that in your own personal context. Maybe you aren’t the opt-in – then what? Let’s presume you are.
You may have to move this ‘Why’ thinking up the organisation first to verify that you’ve got it right. Or perhaps you are the top of the food chain and need to get this type of thinking down and into every team you have.
Having first sorted yourself out, then you need to align everyone else that you are leading. For all that there is now an ‘umbrella Why’, it must be translated into the ‘Why’ for those that you are leading. Remember the 5 Whys. Your organisation’s Why is number one (or number five depending on how you went about it). You need to push forward to a ‘Why’ for your team or department. Why does your specific team exist? Why do they need to operate in the way they do? I’ve seen some very pithy answers to these questions. It most often corresponds to not properly establishing a concrete vision or ‘Why’ which in turn leads to the shifting Why problem.
You need to find the ‘Why’ and commit to it.
Should I ‘Why’?
Let me try to package this up. The ‘Start with Why’ approach is an articulate advocation of the need for vision. Organisational theorists have been talking for decades about vision being the starting point for every successful undertaking. What Simon Sinek has done is reminded us of this fact and added his own valuable insights to the conversation.
One of the key traits of a leader is vision. Without vision there is no strategy, without strategy, you are rudderless, mindlessly meandering from one issue to another, never knowing success because you cannot know if you are making progress.
Another key trait of a leader is integrity. As a leader, if you are not aligned to the values of your organisation, you cannot have integrity. Integrity is more valuable to the people you are leading than vision as it is the cornerstone of trust. If you are not trusted, you will never be followed.
On a personal level, you owe it to yourself to first understand your own values, and then evaluate whether the organisation you are in is aligned with those values. That’s where you will find your own satisfaction.