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The uncomfortable truth – great organisations start with what, not why?

For those of you who are big fans of Simon Sinek, I'm not looking to start a fight with you or him. I am a big fan of his early work and have shared it with clients hundreds of times.

However, his work has propagated an attractive myth that great organisations start with a core belief or purpose and that their success is built on this why.

The Start With Why message is gaining momentum again, with podcasts like Diary of a CEO and The High Performance Podcast resharing the philosophy. It is powerful but misleading.

The purpose of this article is to give an alternative view.

Purpose is powerful, but it isn't the starting point

An organisation's purpose is part of its cultural narrative. It gives people who share that purpose or core belief an emotional connection to why the organisation exists and why they should care.

But the purpose isn't the starting point.

The leadership team shapes the purpose as they work out what kind of organisation they want to be.

Organisations start with what

Apple is often held up as the bastion of starting with why. But if you retrace the history of this powerhouse, it is founded on a series of strategic business decisions, including one to make assembled computers rather than the circuit boards that they were originally going to produce.

Apple's initial success rested on strategic decisions that attracted investment, which, in turn, led to commercial success. This isn't as alluring a tale as starting with why, but it is a powerful fact. The creation and nurturing of the Apple culture came later.

Another cultural exemplar from the UK is Innocent drinks. I have appreciated Innocent's cool culture, innovative brand and excellent products since way before I really understood culture or brand.

But even in Innocent's case, there was a key strategic decision at the beginning of the process. In 1998, the business founders, Richard Reed, Adam Balon and Jon Wright, spent six months working on smoothie recipes and £500 on fruit before creating the ultimate consumer test at a music festival in London. The brilliant Innocent culture followed, but they decided what they were going to be first.

Strategy drives culture

Here is the key: great organisations start with a clear strategic direction, and then their culture is shaped to support the strategic goals. Purpose is a strategic enabler rather than the foundation of success.

It is possible to build an organisation with a powerful purpose, great values, and inspiring vision and for it not to be a commercial success if that culture does not support its strategy.

The Alignment Advantage

If you want to know more about creating an aligned organisation, my recently published book The Alignment Advantage is a great place to start. If you haven't read it yet, you can buy it here.

(This is an updated version of an article I first published in July 2021)


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