"Why do we have a leap year? Why is the sky blue? Why am I right handed? Why is the sea salty?" If you have ever spent much time around children, you know that their favorite question is "Why?". While it can be frustrating at times, the great thing about this is that they are asking because they really want to know the answer. In most cases they are not doing it to drive you crazy (even though it may seem that way sometimes!) Adults, on the other hand, often skip this question and head straight to "What?". As in "What does your company do?" or "What do we need to do to achieve this goal?". But if you pay attention to the more successful people in your life, they often fall back to their inner-child and take the time to understand "Why?" before proceeding to "What?".
When it comes to our businesses, the question of "Why?" is one of the most powerful ones we can ask and it probably the most important one to answer. So why is it so important? Why do we need to take the time to answer it? (Do you see what I did there? :) ) To answer the question, I am going to lean heavily on a book that everyone should read: Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action" by Simon Sinek. If you don't have time to read it, at least watch his Ted talk.
In his book, Mr. Sinek says the "why" for a business is a purpose, cause or belief. When we lead with purpose or cause, we are able to inspire action and better drive decision-making and behavior. As human beings, we are more motivated by belief than we are by rational thought. These feelings (an understanding of "Why?") greatly influence the decisions we make on a daily basis.
How many decisions are made each day that affect the direction and strategy of your company? If you stop to think about it, the number is quite large. Everyone in the organization is constantly making large and small decisions that impact the future of your company. So what is driving these decisions? Is it an understanding of the purpose and vision of why your company exists or is it something else? If you do not instill a clear sense of purpose and vision, the results are likely going to be scattered and not well aligned.
Let's take a couple examples. If you look at the vision statement for Google, you will find it to be "Organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful". While this statement is pretty broad reaching, it provides some basic constraints that the employees can use in their day-to-day work. It also sets the model for where innovation should happen for Google. They are not going to invest in anything that is not information-centric.
A second example is Publix supermarkets. Their vision statement is "To be the premier quality food retailer in the world". So, all decisions at the company should be made in light of this purpose. We are not likely to see them branch out into non-food related retail markets unless they were to change their vision.
In contrast, here is a portion of the Eastman-Kodak mission statement: "we plan to grow more rapidly than our competitors by providing customers with the solutions they need to capture, store, process, output and communicate images. anywhere, anytime." Notice how this mission is more of a "what" than a "why". This mission statement focuses on end results and hence does not provide guidance like the mission statements from Google and Publix.
Unfortunately we have seen Kodak move from a dominant position in their market to a point where the phrase "Kodak moment" does not make sense to a new generation of consumers. It could be that a portion of this change is due to the employees not really understanding the why of the company.
Both Google and Publix have taken a very important step in providing their employees with a sense of "Why?". If you work at either company, you know why the company exists and the vision for the organization. This clarity allows employees to focus on the "What?" and know how to best align with the corporate "Why?".
As I talk more about innovation again in future posts, keep in mind the concept of "Why?". Understanding why is a key piece to being able to innovate successfully. If you want to see more about the larger discussion of Innovation, check out our eGuide to Intentional Innovation.