“Start with why” is an Appealing Slogan; but Don’t Fall for it

Start with ‘why’! Having a big ‘why’, a noble and ambitious reason for being (purpose), is the secret of winning business strategies. That’s what Simon Sinek, author of the best-selling book Starting with Why, explains. According to him, all organizations know what they do, and most of them also know how they do it. But very few know why they do what they do. Only those with a big ‘why’ can really succeed, and defining that ‘why’ is therefore a prerequisite for any ambitious strategic thinking. It sounds logical, it’s certainly appealing, and it’s a widespread belief today, but it’s wrong. Let’s see… why.

Simon Sinek’s favorite example is Apple. He gives us a long demonstration to explain that if we buy Apple, it’s because Steve Jobs was able to convince us of his ‘why’. I don’t believe it. If we buy an iPhone, it’s because we think it’s a good phone. All his ‘why’ would be useless if Apple made bad phones. Besides, Apple makes a bad TV set and it doesn’t sell. Besides, iPhone buyers would be hard pressed to explain Apple’s ‘why’. Most of them don’t give a damn. We can try to oppose Apple and it’s great why (but which one?) and Samsung who wouldn’t have one, or Dell, which Sinek uses as a counter-example, who doesn’t have one either. Except that Samsung sells 300 million phones each year very profitably, and Dell is 90 billion dollars of turnover! Dell has never given in melodrama à la Apple, never a sentimental and visionary ‘why’. They just make good computers for a decent price: I’ve had several and I was very satisfied with them. So yes, maybe some companies have a great and true ‘why’, but many don’t and are doing well, thank you very much. Let’s remember that Bill Hewlett and David Packard created HP simply because they wanted to work together, when they graduated. There was no ‘why’. Just the desire to work together from what they knew (their passion for electronics, then in full emergence). Sinek would have disapproved.

But above all, the entrepreneurial theory of effectuation has long shown that most companies, large or small, started without a very clear idea of what they wanted to do. Entrepreneurs start with who they are, what they know and who they know and imagine what they can do with that. They do with what they have at hand and gradually build something. Ikea started out as a simple grocery store; it wasn’t until ten years after it was founded that the company started selling furniture, and it never claimed a grand slogan; it just did its job well (if you judge by its success). In other words, at the origin of the greatest entrepreneurial or industrial successes is very rarely a big ‘why’. This is not necessary, even if some founders sometimes decide to define one. More often than not, however, this ‘why’, when it exists, is either a distraction or a retrospective construction that has little to do with reality and even less with the beginnings. It’s a nice story that companies sometimes think they have to make up, but we don’t have to believe them.

Why? Because! (Source: Wikipedia)

The big why is you

But the question of ‘why’ also, and perhaps especially, arises at the individual level, and Sinek’s book has become a kind of personal development bible. I regularly meet executives or entrepreneurs who explain to me that they need to find their big ‘why’. I am always amazed. The assumption, it seems, is that one needs to justify one’s existence in order to move forward; that one cannot move forward if one does not have a clear purpose and a reason for being; that this reason for being, naturally, must be ambitious and noble. Why they believe this, I do not know. There is no reason for it. No research has ever suggested that an individual must be clear about his or her purpose in order to succeed. Some people have very clear goals and a clear purpose, no doubt. Some even succeed because of it. But others fail because of it: their purpose locks them into a sterile idealism, their ambition for perfection frustrates them forever from doing anything concrete. But above all, like entrepreneurs, many succeed without any ‘why’ other than themselves. To impose the idea that everyone needs a why is to impose an ideal that is unattainable for most mortals. It is an anti-humanist ideology. Let us remember that none of us asked to be conceived or born. We do not have to justify being.

The only really necessary reason is Spinoza’s conatus, i.e. the will to persevere and develop in one’s being. In substance, the only, the true why, is you! Whether you are an individual or an organization. This is where you have to start. This is what effectuation proposes by saying “start from who you are”. It’s time to abandon the obsession with the ‘why’, a predominant mental model that makes us point over there, far away, to refocus our action on ourselves, towards the here and now.

Start with you

So don’t fall into the trap of the ‘why’ gurus, those who lock you in by making you believe that only a big why will allow you to succeed. The only why is you, and that’s it. Start from who you are, what you know and whom you know, and ask yourself what you can do with that, and with whom you can do it. The why will be built, or rather co-constructed, as stakeholders get involved. Thus, from a hypothetical and idealistic why, it will become retrospective because that will allow you to tell a beautiful story to your children.

➕To read more on effectuation: Effectuation: How Entrepreneurs (Really) create new products, new organizations and new markets. On the idea of ‘meaning and noble purpose’, read Do you need to build a cathedral to give meaning to your employees’ work?

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🇫🇷French version of this article here.

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