In the third most popular TED Talk of all time Simon Sinek urges leaders to start with why. Sinek’s message was fairly simple. Great communicators communicate very differently to most people. Whereas most people communicate from the outside in, by describing what they do, great communicators communicate from the inside out by describing why they do what they do. That is, they begin by describing their purpose, their cause, their beliefs. Sinek argues that this is important as people are inspired by why you do what you do much more so than what you do and if you inspire people they will buy what it is that you are selling because they “believe what you believe”.
I love this TED talk and his subsequent book on the same topic. I readily acknowledge that I have always had a fairly large idealist streak and I have been fascinated by the role of purpose and contribution in business. As a result Sinek’s message immediately resonated with me and I think that the pre-eminence of purpose has broader implications than being a more inspiring way to communicate. Research has emerged that shows that purpose driven companies tend to make more money than those driven predominantly on a financial only basis. For example the 2013 Deloitte Core Beliefs & Culture survey reports that:
“Organizations that focus beyond profits and instill a sense of purpose among their employees are more likely to find long-term success. An overwhelming majority of respondents who say their company has a strong sense of purpose also say their company has a history of strong financial performance (91 percent).”
In short, starting with why and building a sense of purpose enhances performance. Yet we seem to routinely ignore this wisdom in our businesses and in particular when it comes to technology. Our default response to technological advances today is beware of disruption. Disruption is everywhere and if it hasn’t got you yet, don’t worry it will get you soon. Just about everything I read is about disruption and transformation responses (yes that is probably a sad indictment on my reading habits). The problem is disruption and transformation focus on what we do (our current activities and processes) and how we do it (our deployed business model) but it tells us nothing about why we do what we do, our purpose.
So, while I don’t dispute the “truth” of these statements I note that these “truths” emerge from outside in thinking and are not that helpful when it comes to understanding how to respond to technologies advances. It’s one thing to know that you need to change, but it is entirely different thing to know what to to change to. In the face of this dilemma what most organisations end up doing is exactly the same as everyone else and as any economics student can tell you, if you are doing the same as everyone else then commodity economics begin to take hold and that is not a place most organisations strive for, but it is what they are creating.
There is an alternative and it is when considering the impact of new and emerging technology on our business we need to start our enquiry from a deep understanding of why our organisation exists in the first place. As Simon says (yes I went there) we need to start with why, we need inside out thinking. If we start with our why then that informs the decisions we need to make about how to change and what to change to. We merely need to review a potential technology and ask does (or how could) this technology help us to better express our purpose? If you come up with an affirmative answer then move to the next step, which may be to begin to experiment and prototype. If the answer is no then move on to the next candidate.
One of the major challenges we have when seeking to technology enable our businesses is that technology changes so quickly. What is hot today can be gone tomorrow. It’s tough to know what to invest in and when to invest. Purpose, however, is exactly the opposite. Purpose is almost always defined for the long terms and purpose or “why” never, or perhaps very seldom, gets disrupted. While there is always a new challenge to be met, an improvement to be thought about and implemented, purpose is “everlasting”. It doesn’t really matter what the latest greatest newest technology is, your purpose is likely still valid and it provides a powerful context for technology not as a disruptor, but as an enabler.
An enabler. An old and some may even say old fashioned concept in technology today but isn’t that the role of technology? To enable something that couldn’t be done before and what better thing to enable than the fulfillment of purpose.