By now most of you are probably familiar with Simon Sinek’s iconic “Start With Why” TED talk. Even if you’ve not seen the talk, you’ve most likely encountered one of the army of why-merchants that have sprung up in his wake. Asking you “why” it is you do what you do has become something of a cottage industry, most prevalent in marketing, but with tentacles spreading into all sorts of business thinking.
Before getting into my complaint with this, I will start by saying that it is truly a terrific talk and important insight. If you’ve not seen the video I urge you to watch it – here’s a 5 minute edit that hits the key notes:
OK, got it? Great. I think we can agree his central point is clear and compelling. To build an inspiring business, you need some motivation. You need a belief, a dissatisfaction with the status quo, something you’re trying to make better. If you don’t have this (and believe me many businesses don’t), you’re essentially a parasite, a machine engineered to suck value out of a market without putting any back in – and nobody wants to participate in that. So, for sure, having a “why” is fundamentally important, and not something to be taken for granted.
However, necessary though it might be, it is not sufficient. In fact too much focus on your “why” can be positively damaging. Far from creating a new generation of inspiring and creative businesses as Sinek hoped, slavish “why chasing” has started to have the reverseeffect, with adherents becoming increasingly insipid and bland.
Here (ahem) is why.
Have you ever tried doing one of those exercises where you ask “why?” to a question a bunch of times to get to the “real answer”? It has its place, but a flaw that many people have found with it is that as you keep asking the question you always end up in the same place – something like “the fear of death”. Why do people buy our running shoes? Because they like want to run fast. Why do they want to run fast? Because they want to win. Why do they want to win? Because they want to be attractive to a mate. Why do they want to be attractive to a mate? To pass on their genetics. Why do they want to pass on their genetics? Because they fear death.
Ah, got it! Nike: Fear of death.
You can see the problem here right? If you dig a little, the answer to the question of why will always become increasingly broad, resulting in all manner of businesses answering the same fundamental need. OK it might not always be “fear of death”, but it’s not too far off.
Consider the food industry, and the “purpose” of the new businesses in that space. To a man, they almost always have a “why” of making people healthier. Now this is a noble goal, no doubt about it, but it’s not an effective platform for building a business. Why? Because it’s so broad and bland it does nothing to distinguish the business in the market. It does nothing to suggest the value that that specific business adds. I could care really really passionatelyabout making people healthier, and thus launch, say, a low calorie mayonnaise, but my “why” wouldn’t help it succeed because the “how” is so boring and unoriginal. And therein lies the crux: the “why” is only the fuel; the much-maligned “how” is the thing that makes the business successful or not.
We can see this with one of Sinek’s own examples in his video. In it he references Apple as being a business with a really strong “why” of “believing in doing things differently” / “challenging the status quo”. OK that’s great, can’t argue with that, but that didn’t mean they made all their employees wear clown suits and paid them with cookie dough. They instead challenged the status quo in a very particular way. In their heyday, when they really established their market position, computers we still considered complex and intimidating to a huge chunk of the non-techy population. So what Apple did was focus on making computers super easy to use, accessible, friendly, and even cute. The ultimate articulation of this was the original iMac, which acted essentially as a philosophical template for every Apple product since – at least until the end of the Steve Jobs era. You can see therefore that Apple, even though they didn’t spell it out in their ads (where they did indeed keep things focused on the generic “why” platitude of “Think Different”) had a very specific, very unique, and very effective “how”. In the video it’s breezed over as “beautifully designed” and “user friendly”, but every manufacturer was trying to do that; Apple’s approach was much more profound and jarring within the context of the day. It was this “how” that made them a brilliant company, that gave the public something they wanted. Their “why” simply provided the passion, and only worked as a piece of comms because the realities of the business supported it so brilliantly.
Now I don’t think for a moment that Sinek dismisses the importance of “how” in a larger sense, but many people seem to have taken that unintended lesson from him. The world is littered with uninspired, unoriginal companies that provide little unique vale, and yet who are talking big games with their “why” because it’s so cheap to do so; a marketing gambit which they don’t seem to realise only accentuates their blandness, rather than diminishing it.
So, by all means make sure your business has a good reason to exist, a reason you “get out of bed in the morning”. Without this, you’ve got nothing. But, when you’ve got that, ensure that the way you’re achieving that goal is effective, valuable, and yours alone. Otherwise, you’ve got nothing other than good intentions – and those neither sell, nor do they achieve their loftier goal.
I’ll leave you with this clip from the HBO show Silicon Valley, which does a better job of making my point than I ever could. If you recognise yourself in this… “think different”.