The following is an excerpt from a book I’m working on, called:
No Bullshit Strategy: A founder’s guide to forming a strategy that actually works
I hope to have it published by the end of this year, and obviously will promote it on here shamelessly, so hopefully it will be of interest to some of you. As you can deduce from the title, the focus will be on blowing away all of the vague, wooly, corporate-ese nonsense from the field of strategy, and leaving you with the “pure sauce”, top-to-bottom, that you can action right away.
In the meantime I thought this below segment worked decently enough as its own self-contained essay, and since I’m a bit snowed under this week I thought I’d use it here. Hope you like.
I’ve often been quite critical of the process of businesses “finding their why”, largely because it’s so often used as a substitute for developing a strategy. Although I think there are occasions when a “why” can double as a strategy, they are few and far between.
Where a “why” can be useful however is in strategic execution.
To understand why (ahem) this is, you need to first recognise that a “why” is at root a leadership tool. Its job is to inspire and motivate people – whether that’s your team, your partners, or your customers. It’s not the “what” or the “how” – that’s the strategy. It’s also not explanation for why the strategy works, the rationale. That’s also part of the strategy. It is instead the entirely separate question of why it would be a good thing if we were to succeed with this strategy.
Let me lay that out again like this:
What we’re going to do, and why it will work —> Strategy
Why it would be a “good thing” if we were to do this —> The “why”
(The way many businesses use the idea of “mission” is exactly the same; a mission is a why)
As you can see, you don’t need a why (or mission) for the strategy, and nor does it do a strategic job. It’s an additional element which exists purely for propagandistic purposes. To “sell” the strategy to people, and to get them bought in.
You can see this clearly in the original and famous example of a why that Simon Sinek explained in his original TED talk. Here he described Apple’s why as “we believe in challenging the status quo, and thinking differently”. OK, that stacks up, and clearly it was reflected in their Think Different strapline. However you might also notice that this statement is entirely strategically empty. It doesn’t tell you what part of the status quo they want to challenge, or how precisely they think differently. If Apple made computers out of cheese and forced all their employees wear kilts, that would be “thinking different and challenging the status quo”. But it also wouldn’t be very effective. What made them successful was the particular way they thought differently, and the why doesn’t tell you that.
What the why does do however, is to make those particularities (the strategy), sound noble and exciting. And this is very useful for execution.
By having a motivational why or crazy sounding mission you will find it much easier to get your team aligned and on board. This is essential as a common issue in strategy implementation is when teams think that the strategy is somehow “above them” and “belongs” to the board, and isn’t something that really concerns them at the coalface where they’re doing the “real work” of the business. This is nonsense clearly, because the strategy manifests at the coalface, meaning it’s as much the concern of rank-and-file employees as it is anyone else.
A well thought out why serves to connect the strategy to such employees, and to make them feel that it’s something they want to get involved with. It’s also, frankly, going to be way more simple and one-dimensional than the strategy, making it easier to remember for those who aren’t really strategically minded. Don’t get me wrong, the strategy shouldn’t be complicated – everyone should be able to get it easily – but being real some people just aren’t very interested in this kind of stuff, and so will always be a tough audience. For them a why is a pretty good substitute. It won’t tell them what to do and what’s going on… but it will at least make them understand why the business is going through a process of change, and will prevent all the annoying “what’s the point of this” grumbles which can arise in any disruptive moment.
So how do you come up with one?
Well, it should go without saying that earning the business more money isn’t a very effective why. Effective for you maybe, but not effective for everyone else. No instead there are three broad categories of why that you might consider:
- Consumer benefit why
- Category change why
- Social good why
Consumer Benefit Why
A consumer benefit why is a pretty easy one to come up with, as it will fall directly out of a value-oriented strategy. Essentially the motivation is the good thing you’re going to do for your consumers.
Now the catch here is that many great strategies won’t have a particularly lofty or exciting benefit for consumers. The benefit might actually be something really quite humble, but which nonetheless delivers real strategic advantage. Therefore don’t assume that the benefit you’re bringing to consumers will necessarily be powerful enough to act as a why for your team.
Category Change Why
When a consumer benefit why doesn’t do the job, you should consider shifting to a category change one. In this instance you are essentially declaring your intention to “revolutionise” the category in some way. This may well feel bigger and more exciting than what you are doing for consumers, especially in a low interest category where even the most outstanding value offering is going to be pretty trivial in the grand scheme of things.
Social Good Why
Finally we have the social good why, which naturally is what people typically imagine, and tend to gravitate to first, since it’s “noble” and therefore has strong motivational force behind it. And indeed if you can claim that your strategy is going to have some wider social or ecological benefit – even as a by-product – then that’s great. However just be careful not to stray into the realms of parody here. Starbucks’ mission (which is the same as a why in this instance) is to “inspire and nurture the human spirit”, which aside from being ridiculous on the face of it, isn’t sufficiently connected to what the business actually does to be an effective motivational tool. At least not in my view.
You should easily be able to come up with a potential why in at least a couple of these areas if you have a good strategy, and then the job is simply picking the most exciting. Remember that unlike a strategy, a why doesn’t necessarily have to be especially clever or unique. When you come right down to it, there are only really a few dozen broad variants of why that exist, because the things that move human beings are reasonably narrow and fixed. In all likelihood yours is going to be fairly similar to a lot of other businesses, and that’s fine. What makes the difference is how you’re going to go about achieving that lofty ambition – i.e. your strategy.
What I’d also recommend is quantifying it in some way, even if the numbers are basically bollocks. It just makes it feel more ambitious and tangible. So let’s say in the case of Tesla – whose why / mission is “to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy” – you could push that further still by saying something like “to transition 100 million households to fully sustainable energy by 2040”. It’s not essential (certainly not for Tesla, who are fine on this front regardless), but in a lot of cases you can beef up a slightly feeble why this way.
Either way, much as it would be nice if a strategy were to sell itself, and act as its own motivational force, it ultimately needs to be combined with strong leadership – strong leadership from you. And a why is a tool to help you with that