Starting with ‘Why’

Sinke quoteMany an organisation spends a great deal of time and money on the re-branding band wagon. Some outcomes are good, others not so good…and many fit into the ‘huge waste of money’ bucket.

One area that has come up for this  ‘re-fresh’ treatment over the last few years is an organisation’s purpose statement and I suspect that this has a lot to do with the success of the hugely watch-able’ ‘start with why’ TED talk (and related book) by a chap called Simon Sinek back in 2010.

Sinek is a passionate and persuasive orator. If you’ve not watched it before (or if it’s been a while) then I’d highly recommend you spend the 18 mins. to watch it.

Now, what strikes me most about this very insightful talk is Sinek’s comparison between the Wright Brothers and Samuel Pierpont Langley (their main competitor in the flying race).

Two questions I ask myself:

  • Do you think that the Wright Brothers started by crafting a crisp clear ‘Why’ statement, and they then needed to continually look at it to motivate themselves and those around them? I doubt it, they didn’t need to.
  • Do you think things would have been different if Samuel Pierpont Langley had sat down with his corporate advisors* (perhaps at the point that they were struggling to advance) and, after a bit of deep word smith-ing, they had come up with a great ‘purpose’ statement?…because, wow, that now changes everything…erm, NOT!

[* As a quick segue, here’s a wonderful short skit by Dan Heath about what happens when a committee get together to write a corporate statement.]

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that I ‘get’ what Sinek is saying and I agree that, for an organisation to be really successful, it needs to be very clear on its purpose …but there is a chasm between stating (and oft repeating) a catchy ‘purpose’ statement and living and breathing what it means (and removing the obstacles in its path).

There is also a ‘rub’ between an organisation stating a meaningful purpose and it being funded through investors with likely different motives*.

[*I’ve got a post ready to go on this – it will be ‘next cab off the rank’]

Finally, how does an organisation’s fresh and contemporary ‘Why’ statement impact/ fit with/ replace their old purpose statement? It is highly likely that the issue wasn’t with the old one. I think the issue (which remains) will likely be with how the organisation works.

To repeat the end of my recent ‘Principle of Mission’ post:

It doesn’t matter how clearly [any] leader articulates intent if their people don’t want to follow.

Setting out a clear and meaningful purpose is but one (key) part of the overall system. The rest comes down to management’s beliefs and behaviours, and the environment that this creates.

The bit that blew me away from Sinek’s talk is the following:

“Those who [truly] ‘lead’ inspire us, whether they are individuals or an organisation…we follow, not because we have to but because we want to…we follow not for them but for ourselves.”

If an organisation really wants a win/win/win (for employee, customer and investor) then it needs to start with the employees, to provide an environment where they are working towards the purpose*, not for the money but for themselves.

* Addendum: Beware POSIWID.

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2 thoughts on “Starting with ‘Why’

  1. I agree with what you say about written and real purpose.
    POSIWID (purpose of a system is what it does) is a handy acronym that serves well for spotting all sorts of unspoken purposes, and unknown purposes.
    i think if i wanted to find out the TRUE purpose of an organisation, and there could be PLENTY depending on where i was and who i was speaking to or watching, then just seeing what people’s managers paid attention to and praised and rewarded, that would tell me the true operating purpose.
    EVEN IF a top leader truly had a purpose driven mental model, and acted it out himself, if it doesnt dribble down to the way the organisation operated, i would still say that the real purpose was the POSIWID not what was intended.

    Liked by 1 person

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