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Do You Remember To Ask Why?

Do You Remember To Ask Why?

Josh Patrick of The New York Times writes on renowned leadership expert and internationally bestselling author of Start With Why, Simon Sinek:

I believe it takes great systems to make great companies. Too often, rather than using a systematic decision-making process, we decide what we want to do before we understand why. Simon Sinek has put together a must-see TED lecture that deals with this and explains how great leaders inspire action.

It seems many businesses lurch from one initiative to another without real direction. Something seems like a good idea, and the owner will lead the charge. Several months later, the owner decides it really wasn’t a good a good idea and starts to focus on another bright, shiny object. Then the business charges in a different direction.

During the first 10 years I owned my vending business, I was one of those owners. I kept changing direction without good reason. I didn’t understand this at the time, but I was training my employees to just wait me out. They learned to not do anything because my next great idea might be only days or weeks away.

I kept changing direction for one reason. I was never clear on why I needed to do something different. For many owners like me, the problem is that we begin by asking what we want to do and then move directly to how we’re going to do it. But, as Simon Sinek points out, the crucial part of the equation is the question why. If we take the time to explain why we are doing something and why it makes sense in the context of our overall business mission, the world starts to look different.

I work with a manufacturer that makes great profits when it does customized work in small batches. This is a niche the company has developed, and it has worked well for more than 50 years. About two years ago the company licensed a product from outside an outside supplier that would require producing large batches at low prices to make money.

During a conversation with the owner, I asked why he decided to introduce this new line. After I asked the question, there was dead silence. After the long pause, he said, “I just never really thought about it.” And, that’s the crux of the problem in many companies: we just don’t think about it.

Had this owner really thought about why he wanted to bring in a product line with lower margins, he probably would not have been able to come up with a good answer. He might have saved himself a few years of effort that produced no results but cost him time and money. The good news is that he is now in the process of getting away from this idea and returning to what his company does best.

When I ask why something is important, I generally ask more than once. Even if we think we know the answer, I keep asking follow-up questions. When we get to the core reason of why we are doing something, we often decide to change our approach.

In the case of the manufacturer, his first reason was that he wanted to increase sales. It was only after I asked why he wanted to increase sales that he realized this new line of business didn’t fit with what his company’s mission. It wasn’t what the company did well.

The more you ask why, the better your answers become. The side benefit of this is that you not only make a better decision but you leave yourself better equipped to communicate the decision to those who have to execute it. This helps all of your stakeholders get excited about what you intend to do.

Here is the system I use:

1. I start with a statement about what I want to do.

2. I ask why five times — to get to my core reason.

3. I revisit what I want to do and make sure it’s consistent with the “why” I’ve developed.

4. I decide how I want to achieve my outcome.

5. I decide who I need to have involved with me to achieve the outcome.

This is what Southwest Airlines did when it got started. Instead of serving the business public, it went after the traveling public. The company realized that its customers were more interested in inexpensive fares than in frills; they would accept inconveniences to get where they wanted to go as long as the savings were significant. The company was very clear about who their customers were.

Today, I’m starting to see a different direction with Southwest. Its advertising is aimed at the business traveler. This is not what made Southwest successful. It will be interesting to see if this new direction confuses employees and customers.

Has your business made decisions without thinking things through sufficiently?