A blank screen. A blinking cursor. Each flash of a that little vertical line started to beat like a drum. Louder and louder. Take a deep breath… why am I doing this again?
That was me three months ago, trying to write the About Us page for my new company’s website. I had just gone through the most difficult, self-reflective period of my professional life and come out the other side with a conceptual idea of a business that I wanted to build. I had talked it through with my wife and family. I had given my employer notice that I was leaving. I was getting all my ducks in a row for launch. Yet, somehow I couldn't write this one page that should have been so simple. Then, the title of a book I read a few years ago started to echo in my head: Start With Why...
This post is the second in an 11-part series that will detail the trajectorE Navigation System (tENS), a 10-step process for executing strategic growth and improvement projects. If you missed part 1 of this series, which provides an overview of tENS, you can find it here. The focus of this edition is the foundational first step, which is to review why your organization exists and assess where you are on that long term journey. Before launching a significant growth or improvement initiative, you need to ensure it will propel the organization in the right direction. To do this, you need to know your starting point as well as where the organization is intended to go over the long term. If your organization hasn’t clearly defined it’s Why then you need to take the time to do this. If it exists only as words on the wall that are meaningless to most people in the organization, then a review and possibly a refresh of them is in order.
“Start With Why” is the title of Simon Sinek's 2009 book and the subject of his popular TED Talk that describes how great leaders and companies approach things differently than most. The most common question we ask someone we meet in a professional setting is "What do you do?" you then may move on to ask How they do that, but rarely if ever do you ask Why. That is the way many companies and leaders approach their employees and customers: What We Do, How We Do It and then, maybe, Why We Do It. Great companies get their employees and their customers on board by starting with Why.
How do you articulate your Why as an organization? A common way to do this is by writing it down in the form of a Mission and/or Vision statement. Interestingly, there is a fair bit of variability among how companies have approached these statements; some have a Vision only, others only have a Mission statement and many have both. In order to document why your business or organization exists, you need to dig down to the root of the fundamental problem that you are trying to solve, as concisely as possible. The Walt Disney Company does an excellent job of this in their Vision statement: “To make people happy.” This is an excellent Why statement. Who wouldn’t want to be a customer of a company trying to make them happy? What employee, or in Disney's case "cast member”, wouldn’t be inspired by this? Note that words like “profit” are omitted, because if that’s the only reason your business exists, then you don’t have the foundation of long term success.
I am of the school of thought that the Mission statement defines why the organization exists and the Vision defines what you want it to become. Is it a global company? Is it a municipal non-profit? Is it a natural resources company or is it an e-commerce company? Amazon has a great vision statement: “Our vision is to be earth's most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.” This statement makes it clear what Amazon plans to do and the geographic reach is has planned over the long term. It also drops in a sprinkle of how they want to achieve this: by being customer centric.
Most organizations document their How in a set of Values, which are intended to drive the right behaviours across their organization. With this in mind, you won’t be surprised to hear that Starbucks includes “ethically sourcing the finest coffee beans” as a value, Westjet notes “Fun, friendly and caring” among theirs, Facebook wants to “Be bold”, and Disney lists “Creativity, dreams and imagination” among their core values. These Values set the foundation of a company’s culture and should drive decision making and strategic direction.
Many companies underestimate the importance of this thought process and the power of these statements. Take Manitowoc Company for example. Until earlier this year, it was trying to compete in both the heavy industrial crane and foodservice equipment industries, while their Mission was “to continuously improve economic value for our shareholders.” Not very inspiring for anyone other than their shareholders. In fact, it wasn’t even that inspiring for them because Wall Street had been pushing for this company to break up for some time (see this article by Jim Cramer). Then in February 2016, the board of directors approved the break-up of the company into a crane company and a foodservice equipment company to allow “each to capitalize on the opportunities in their respective markets.” This is a great example of a company not having a single, coherent Why, which led to market forces breaking it up into separate organizations that do.
Another example of the importance of this comes from my personal experience as an employee of a large multi-national corporation. The company underwent a significant growth phase during the 2000s under a Vision of being the "largest" company in its space. While it drove the growth strategy that was mandated by the board, this was a difficult Why to get behind as an employee, and as a leader it was difficult to position this in a way that inspired my team. Then, in 2011 a new CEO was appointed and within 6 months, a new Vision was published for the organization that focused on “excellence” rather than size and decreed the company’s Values to include life, people and the environment. These are much more aligned with my values as a human being and so my commitment to the company was strengthened and I could proudly recite the company's Why to employees to guide our behavior and decision making.
This importance of this was even further cemented for me when I joined the leadership team that was forming a new business unit within that same organization. We wanted to build a novel culture for this part of the organization and so we decided to take the corporate Why statement and translate that into a more specific Why for our business unit. This manifested itself in what we called a Purpose Statement and Behaviour Principles, which was clearly aligned with the global Why, but refined it for maximum applicability for our business unit. Then, each department within this business unit further broke this down into lower level purpose statements to define the Why for each department. Especially for a young organization, this exercise helped build the culture we were looking for, it built a very high level of engagement in those who were part of the exercise and served as an excellent foundation on which to bring more people into the business. One of my most memorable moments of that process came when a quality management expert who came from another business unit, where they had undergone an ISO 9001 certification process, said that she was inspired by the fact that we were defining our Why because it was the right thing to do, rather than because it was “required” as part of a certification.
Once you have defined your Why, this needs to permeate the organization so that everyone understands what it is and how to live it out on a daily basis. It needs to be more than a bunch of words posted on the conference room wall. This starts with leaders drawing linkages between the Why and day to day decisions, activities and projects. This may seem somewhat awkward for new leaders at first and feel like soap-boxing, however this is a part of being a good leader in an organization with purpose and becomes more natural with practice. These linkages should be reinforced on an ad-hoc basis as well as in regular routines where possible. In the business unit that I described above, we reviewed our Purpose & Principles during monthly staff meetings and discussed examples of when they were either displayed or contradicted in our day to day activities.
While these discussions can sometimes start with awkward silences, it is important to make people feel comfortable to discuss the good and the bad. This is an important part of the feedback process that helps ground strategy setters on where the organization really is in relation to the Why, since if it isn’t felt throughout the organization then it means that either the end state isn’t resonating with the workforce or it hasn’t been cascaded effectively. This feedback is critical in order to effectively define and execute the organization's strategy.
All sustainable organizations exist for a reason. More than making money, they exist to add value by solving a problem. Whether you are part of a 100-year-old company, an entrepreneur, or running a non-profit, in order to inspire your employees, customers or donors, you need to start by defining and communicating your organization’s Why. This is the foundation on which your strategy is built and so it needs to be clearly articulated, which is generally done in the form of a Mission, Vision or Purpose statement. While some believe that these merely turn into words posted on a wall and don’t have a practical impact on the business, the organization’s Why has a fundamental long term impact on the business’ performance and employee engagement if used effectively. One of the primary uses of an organization’s Why is to guide strategic decision making in the context of the organization's internal and external environment. Assessing this environment is required before setting medium term objectives, and this process will be discussed in more detail in part 3 of this series describing the trajectorE Navigation System.
Check out Our Purpose if you are interested in how we have implemented the content of this post in our business.
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