Internet entrepreneur, Simon Sinek, has a popular TED talk on asking why. His primary advice in building a successful company is that:
People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.
Unfortunately, while I admire Mr. Sinek, I cannot fully agree with this principle. Like most Americans, I generally buy from companies based on the quality, price and service of what they provide, not based upon why they do what they do.
While the “why” may not affect most of our purchasing decisions, addressing the “why” in other ways is invaluable in helping us, as leaders, move our businesses forward.
The Why of Our Company: As leaders, it is critical that we communicate the why of our company.
- Why does our company exist?
- What is its purpose?
When we clearly communicate the purpose of our company, we help all of our employees see the meaning and purpose of what they are doing on a day-by-day basis. This leads to improved motivation as our employees feel part of something larger than just the paycheck they receive. This resonates with the younger generation who appear to value purpose in their work highly. In addition, communicating the why of our company helps our team to understand our values and strategic focus; it helps to clarify and set direction for our company:
- This is what we stand for
- This is what we do
- This is what we do not do
The Why of Our Daily Activities: In training a new employee or training someone on a new task or process, it is vital that we explain why we need to do this task. Tying in all activities, tasks, processes and procedures to the overall purpose of the business ensures that the employee understands the reason for doing the activity and its importance. As such, the employee appreciates their individual importance to the success and larger purpose of the business.
The Why of the Other Person: We are always interacting with other people: supervisors, employees, colleagues, customers, vendors, etc. In each circumstance, we communicate and work better if we focus on finding out the other person’s whys.
- Why are they saying what they are saying?
- Why are they doing what they are doing?
By figuring out the why behind the other person’s behavior (what do they hope to achieve by their speech and actions? and why do they want to achieve that?), we will more likely come to a resolution or understanding with that person.
The Why of Problem Solving: To solve problems well, we should regularly employ the “Five Whys” (as popularized by Toyota) to ensure that we focus on the root cause of a problem rather than a symptom. In using the “Five Whys” to address a problem, we start with a why question, then to every answer we ask a why question. If we repeat five times, we will usually come to the underlying cause of the problem, which is what needs to be solved.
In summary, addressing the why question is vital for business success.
- Understanding the why creates clarity and empathy.
- Communicating the why creates meaning and thus motivation.