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“Start With Why” Is Bad Advice

By January 25, 2017 One Comment

In his seminal TED talk, author Simon Sinek offers a simple, compelling framework to explain how the best companies, and leaders, “think, act and communicate.”

In a nutshell, Simon suggests that they “start with why” (i.e. they lead with why they do what they do; “their purpose”).

Average organizations and leaders, on the other hand, start with the “what” (i.e. what they do or what they make; their product or service) without giving any explanation of the “why.”

Start With Why

Sinek makes a powerful and persuasive argument and the presentation, How Great Leaders Inspire Action, has been watched over 30 MILLION times.

I am personally responsible for at least 100 of those views.

I’ve shared clips of his talk in workshops and coaching sessions. I’ve even facilitated discussions for company leaders who wanted to define and clarify their “why.”

Despite having spent so much time with the idea however, I’ve struggled to apply the “Golden Circle” framework successfully. I’ve struggled to consistently help my clients discover their “why” and use it to inform decisions on everything from hiring, to new product development.

Of course, this may just be a case of “user error.” But I believe that my experience reveals a small, but important, flaw in the model.

I’ve come to realize that “Start With Why” obscures what really matters when it comes to creating enduring companies and legacies.

Let me explain…

WHY IS APPLE SO SUCCESSFUL?

One of the highlights of the talk is Sinek’s description of how “start with why” explains Apple’s success.

First, he imagines what an Apple marketing message might sound like if they were “like everybody else:”

“Hi, we’re Apple. We make great computers. They’re beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly… Want to buy one?”

“Meh,” he exclaims, suggesting that the “ordinary” message is lifeless and uninspiring.

He counters that with this suggestion on how Apple “really” communicates with it’s customers:

“Everything we do we believe in challenging the status quo; we believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly. We just happen to make computers. Want to buy one?”

Sinek’s delivery is masterful. And his portrayal of what differentiates Apple is, in my opinion, true.

If, however, you are a leader of a company that wants to replicate Apple’s success by discovering, and starting with, your own “why,” then here’s what you need to understand: Apple’s “why” is the same as yours. If you want to replicate Apple’s success, focus on the “how” instead.

“WHY” ALL COMPANIES DO WHAT THEY DO

The question left unanswered by Sinek’s model is this: Why does Apple believe in “thinking different?”

 

From where does that belief come? Why do they continue to maintain that belief?

Answer: Because it’s working for them.

Put another way, they believe in “challenging the status quo” because it allows them to sell increasingly more computers, devices, songs and apps every year.

I don’t mean to say that Apple is the same as Microsoft, or Dell, or Lenovo.

Clearly, it’s not.

That said, despite the many differences among these companies, and the products they make, the one thing they share is, ironically, the “why”: to make a profit.

Steve Jobs may have been a visionary leader and strategist, but he was also the CEO of a publicly-traded company. If “Think Different” failed to produce strong business performance, he would have been out of a job (which, of course, did happen during his first tour at Apple).

Every company shares the same “why” — to make money.

Top-performing companies however (e.g. Apple, Netflix and Amazon, among others), differentiate themselves with their “how” — the values, behaviors and principles that guide their execution.

LEADERS KNOW “HOW”

“Think Different.”

Apple’s tagline is more than just a pithy marketing slogan; they live it as an organization.

It manifests as an approach to problem-solving, and new product development, that is consistently thoughtful, unique and often unexpected.

It’s not their why that explains their success, it’s their how.

As a leader, it’s essential that you, like Steve Jobs and Apple are crystal clear on what you, and your company, value.

Even more, it’s critical that you are able to communicate this to your team, your customers and your investors in a clear and compelling way.

Your “how,” your values, can’t simply be nice-sounding words on a wall, they must mean something within those walls. Real company core values will guide behavior and decision-making across the company even when you, or another senior leader, is not in the room.

Values are the answer to this essential leadership question: in an ever-changing and uncertain world, how must we behave in order to give us the highest probability of long-term success?

If you want to set a clear and compelling path for your company or organization, then “start with why” is bad advice.

Teams that survive and thrive?

They start with “how,” instead.

*****

Note: I am a huge fan of Sinek and his work. I am impressed by both the consistent quality of his insights, as well as his ability to communicate in a way that fosters understanding. He has been able to reach so many leaders with his message and that’s why I wanted to suggest this modification of the model. It’s an idea that’s too important to be misunderstood.

Ben Sands

Author Ben Sands

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  • Steve Van Valin of Culturology

    I believe the one important nuance that you might be missing is that Simon is pointing at the WHY as clincher for why people buy. Being profitable and to survive is no reason for me to buy from you. It has to go much deeper than that. The WHY is the heart of an org’s purpose that explains why they are consistent and sometimes fanatic at executing upon a differentiated How and WHAT. When leading with the true WHY in your sales message (which is very awkward for most people if they don’t get it right and truly believe it), then it is almost automatically a differentiator because most companies don’t have the kahunas to do that. I would agree that in the process of identifying/articulating the Golden Circle, it is far easier for leaders to start with HOW, and then reveal the underlying WHY that drives the HOW as a core belief. Starting with WHY in the articulation process is just too abstract for most leaders.