Beyond Why - Taking on Simon Sinek's "Start With Why"

You may have come across Simon Sinek on YouTube or TED. His 2009 TED talk ‘How great leaders inspire action’ is one of the 25 most popular TED talks of all time. The central premise of that talk, and the subsequent book, Start with Why, is that answering the question ‘Why?’ should be the starting point for any significant decision. It’s a concept that seems to have become pervasive.

Sinek gives us lots to think about, and I enjoy watching him speak, but I’m afraid I have to disagree with him on the central importance of ‘why’.

Simon Sinek argues that by knowing ‘why’ you do something creates much more compelling propositions than simply knowing what you do and how you do it. Articulating a strong sense of purpose makes your mission more convincing, especially in the context of leadership and marketing.

Sinek points to the success of Apple as an example to support his argument. Where the other computer manufacturers were focusing on what they did and how they were different, there was no ‘why’ to what they did to make them stand out. Apple’s ‘why’ is easy to articulate. Their starting point was ‘Think Different’. They wanted to unify beauty and technology and make both accessible to me and you. That purpose drove everything they did, helping them to develop revolutionary products, such as the iPod and iPhone, that stood head and shoulders above the crowd.

So far, so good, Mr Sinek. We agree to this point.

The problem is that it often doesn’t work that way. In creative fields like art and architecture, ‘why’ isn’t enough.

The other day I watched a video of an artist who painstakingly repairs broken pottery, putting the pieces together with a combination of mud and gold. What emerges is a beautiful new piece of artistry that is really something to behold.

The artist’s ‘why’ was not immediately evident. We could ‘reverse engineer’ a ‘why’ and impose it on him, but that would be disingenuous. And really and truthfully it’s not that important. What’s important is that this person has managed to create a beautiful artefact from discarded material and it brings joy to people.

Rather than starting with a ‘why’, this artist, like most, started with an idea. He looked at what he could do with broken pots and through trial and error his idea evolved into a process that became refined over time. As people’s responses to what he was creating became more and more positive, he was inspired to refine his processes even more and communicate to others about his work so that more and more people could enjoy his art. Probably along the way another artist was inspired to do something similar and they are probably experimenting with their own version of some kooky craft that may or may not be turned into a video that we end up watching.

Like so many artists, this person certainly didn’t start with answering why. He saw an opportunity to create and did so. He thought about what he could do then refined what and how he did it by experimentation. If there was a ‘why’ it was the same as that of every other artist: to create something that would inspire a response.

We strive for a similar approach in our practice. When we start a new project it’s not the ‘why’ that produces a good result. If anything answering why our clients want a new house would incline us toward a solution very similar to something we’d done in the past.

So we don’t do that. We come up with ideas based on what is immediately possible – what can be done. Then, through constant dialogue with our clients and other stakeholders, we seek out better solutions. We continue to reappraise as the project progresses and this communicates our purpose more clearly that the ‘why’.

When it comes to creativity, the ‘why’ concept can be limiting. If we look at Apple again, you have to ask what they have done to the mobile phone since the iPhone. While there have undoubtedly been improvements, essentially they have produced the same product over and over again. Apple see themselves as one step ahead of their competition and the market, but their current approach does not leave open the possibility of re-invention and reappraisal. An arrogance ensues, arguably masked by their ‘why’.

This is my view of a better way to see the creation of things and how those things can be marketed.

We do something … anything that is in our capacity. It might be cleaning secondhand bricks, writing a piece of software, making soup, providing legal advice to business leaders or designing a new home.

We look at what we we’ve done. We ask our friends and family what they think of what it. We ask ourselves what we think of our work. We are honest.

And we improve our approach.

We repeat this process again and again until we are satisfied that what we are doing is the best we can offer.

The critical idea here is that we listen to people about what we do, how we do it and why we’re doing it, and through that process of evaluation and re-evaluation we refine the thing we do.

This process may not make you rich or successful, but what you do will be good according to the standard you set for yourself.

Simon Sinek’s ‘start with why’ concept is really a marketing strategy. He is saying that if you explain the ‘why’ to your market sector they will be more willing to buy your product. There is some validity in that in that context, but it isn’t enough when it comes to creating things or building a business.

In the creation of something new, we have to focus on those areas that interest us or that we want to affect, then start with whatever we can do and then continually redefine and refine the how to such a point that it brings out the best outcome for everyone involved.

The ‘can’ and the ‘how’ are more important that the ‘why’ they lead to something worthwhile via constant iteration and critical analysis. If we start by doing what we can, as if by magic the how somehow finds a purpose that is more compelling, more creative and more in tune with people’s expectations and imagination. There is something good in that process that leads to a more creative and sustainable approach.