In the third most popular TED Talk of all time, Simon Sinek inspired leaders to reconnect with their organizational why. In just 18 minutes and with a rough sketch of concentric circles on a flip chart, Sinek shared what he said was “probably the world’s simplest idea.” Most organizations focus on what they do and how they do it. But only the most inspired organizations have leaders who start with why they do it first. And for companies like Apple, and people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Wright Brothers, starting with why was the fundamental difference between success and obscurity.
In a less popular but equally profound TED Talk, Sinek turned again to the flip chart. In “First why and then trust,” Sinek illustrates why organizations must clarify and codify their why. Imagine a simple x, y graph. At the (0,0) coordinates, where x and y meet, is the genesis of an organization. At (0,0), x equals what and y equals, well, why. At that genesis, the what and the why are perfectly aligned. When a company launches, the founders are inspired by a big idea. They put some money together, and off they go.
At first, it’s easy for the founders to share their vision with their handful of employees. Customers are soon attracted and life is good. The what and the why lines grow in parallel on the chart. But, as Sinek explains, “the single biggest challenge that an organization will ever face is its own success.” Here’s why. The more successful an organization becomes, the more people it has to hire based on what they do. The company’s what keeps growing. “The problem is,” Sinek explains, “why they do it starts to go fuzzy.” And as the what and why lines separate, a trust gap occurs.
Consider this example that Sinek gives about trust in America since World War II:
The country rallied together to fight in a war in which they were united and unified behind a common cause. After the war, veterans took advantage of the GI Bill to get low-interest loans or cover tuition to attend college or trade schools. When they entered the job market, they applied the same sense of loyalty to their companies as they had to their country. “The problem is,” says Sinek, “as we started to become more affluent, and the wealth of country started to grow, that sense of purpose — that sense of trust — didn’t grow with it.”
Sinek goes on to describe how trust continued to fall through the 1960’s (the hippie movement), the 1970’s (the Me generation), the 1980’s (think greed is good), and the 1990’s (the dot.com bubble). Over the decades, the country became more and more affluent, but lost touch with its sense of purpose.
Here’s the key takeaway for your organization: the answer to why your organization exists can no longer be simply, “to make a profit.” If you don’t codify, clarify and deploy your why, you’ll have an unsustainable business model and no competitive advantage.
Question: Do you know your organization’s “why”?
Do you know how to codify, clarify, and deploy your organizational purpose? Get 15% off our 2-hour workshop on What’s Your ROP? (Return on Purpose) between now and January 31, 2017. Get a list of available dates and learn more about the program by emailing me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. [Read more about our Purpose Alignment services.]
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