Make a Stand against the Split

After numerous posts on Purpose, where we looked at the considerations your team must take to establish; today’s post is all about making a stand to ensure you execute with excellence. Taking the time to discover your WHY is simply how we begin the journey. Next comes the hard part. We have to bring them to life. We have to share them.

Communicating our WHY is an essential part of identifying the people in the world who believe what we believe, who will be our trusted friends, loyal clients or customers, dedicated employees and inspired partners in bringing the WHY to life. That’s huge. And it is only the beginning.

For an individual, finding their WHY may lead them to realise that there is something else they could be doing or somewhere else they could be doing it that would likely leave them feeling more fulfilled. Finding an organisation’s WHY can lead to a similar conclusion. Maybe the organisation should be offering a different product or service. Maybe it should reconsider its hiring process or its metrics for progress. Perhaps certain employees would do better in different positions or divisions. Or maybe they are not the right fit at all.

It doesn’t mean that you have to make immediate or drastic changes. To keep your purpose alive over time, we must keep it front and center, communicating it and committing to living it – on purpose – everyday. Otherwise a WHY can fizzle, fade or be forgotten. In an organisation when the WHY goes fuzzy, Simon Sinek refers it to as a ‘split’

When an organisation is founded, WHAT it does (i.e. sell widgets) is inextricably linked with WHY it does what it does (even if the company cant express its WHY in words).

  • Founder shares vision with the whole team
  • The entire tribe work in the same office
  • Employees are excited to come to work (even if pay is low and hours long)

As the organisation grows, it’s WHAT and WHY grows hand in hand. But as the business scales over time and more and more people are hired, that is when the split becomes a real threat.

  • Founder assigns someone to hire and manage staff
  • Management structure is put in place
  • Employees become further and further removed from the ‘magic’

The focus is on the ‘WHAT’ (as it is tangible) and the WHY becomes fuzzy.

Although we may not be able to articulate the change, we can all recognise when our organisation experiences the split. Symptoms include increased stress, decreased passion, and lower productivity, engagement and innovation People start saying things like “it used to feel like a family around here. Now it just feels like a job.”

Whereas people were formerly inspired to stay with the organisation, now executives and upper management must work actively to retain them, using ‘hygiene’ tactics such as salary increase, bonuses tied to delivery and share options to those who will commit long term. This kind of money-based manipulation can work in the short term but inevitably fails in the long run. Eventually, employee trust and loyalty break down, performance suffers, numbers drop, layoffs begin and the entire culture of the organisation can erode.

Any organisation, even one with a great purpose based culture, can find itself at the split if it loses focus on the reason it does what it does. Being aware of the problem, however, means that you, as an organisation, can guard against it.

Whether you are proactively protecting a thriving, long lived purpose or need to resuscitate a WHY that has been neglected or ignored, one of the most powerful tools at your disposal is also the simplest: storytelling. This is true whether you are an organisation or an individual.

Storytelling is the way knowledge and understanding have been passed down for millennia, since long before the invention of written language. Storytelling is part of what it is to be human. And the best stories share our values and beliefs. Those stories are powerful. Those stories inspire. Those stories are both the source of our purpose and the fuel that keeps our WHY alive. That’s the reason companies that understand the importance of living their purpose make it easy for their teams to fortify themselves with stories.

These stories will deepen your relationship with your purpose and inspire you to keep going. In turn, you’ll inspire others.

Facilitated Approach to Sharing Your Purpose

Just knowing our WHY doesn’t mean we instantly feel comfortably sharing it. In fact, most of us have been communicating with our WHATs – as we have been shown to do – for our whole lives. It is what we have been taught. It is what has been modeled to us. You may find it a serious challenge to communicate your purpose, cause or belief to others. If so, you are not alone!

Remembering learning to ride a bike? You felt awkward at first. Each time you got back on, you focused on a different tactic all the while trying to stay balanced. You were lifting your feet at times, trying the brakes at various pressures and struggling to look where you wanted to go all the while preoccupied by what your limbs should be doing. It is likely you fell off a few times but you got back on the bike and tried again and again and again. And soon you were flying down the road without even thinking about it.

Starting with WHY is no different. Once you get the hang of it, it is as natural as riding a bike.

The best place to start is with strangers. When meeting someone for the first time, they almost always ask, “What do you do?” This is your opportunity to start with WHY. From this point forward, strangers on planes, chitchatters at cocktail parties and everyone in between your metaphorical bicycle.

While you can recite your WHY Statement word for word, you can also try variations of your statement and stories to help it give meanings to others. Simon Sinek, for example, might say “I inspire people to do things that inspire them, so that, together we can change the world.” This is his Why statement word for word. He sometimes says, “I work with leaders to build inspiring organisations that put people first, I believe that if enough organisations do this, we will change our world.” He often uses a vision statement to begin a conversation. If he is talking about his organisation, he’ll say, “We imagine a world where the majority of people wake up inspired to go to work, feel safe when they are there and return home at the end of the day fulfilled by the work they do. Every product we make, every partnership we have and everything we do is to bring this vision to life.”

It’s not about the exact words of your Why Statement, though that is a good start. It’s about finding ways to share who you are and what you stand for.

I don’t know anyone who has escaped the early days of getting up the courage to share their WHY only to have the person they’re talking to look at them like they have three heads. That’s falling off the bike! It’s going to happen. If that’s the reaction you get, it means one of two things.

It could mean that you weren’t very clear. What you meant to say and what actually came out of your mouth were not aligned. Like riding a bike, where you wanted to go and where you ended up weren’t always the same place. It could also be the case that everything came out perfectly but didn’t resonate with the person you were talking to.

Remember, the WHY is a filter. When you start with WHY, it attracts people who believe and repels people who don’t. The person who politely ends the conversation or switches topics is probably someone with whom your WHY does not resonate. That is perfectly fine. You don’t want to spend a bunch of time small talking with someone who doesn’t believe what you believe. It’s just a sign that there is someone else with whom you could be having a deep and meaningful conversation. Go find them!

Share the Tribe’s Why (3-4 hours)

One of the most effective ways to share within an organisation is to create an opportunity for others to hear about and feel inspired by the WHY.

Then they can take ownership of it and put it into practice. If your tribe is large enough that not everyone could be included in the WHY discovery process, what is the best way to share it with everyone else?

If you are the founder of the organisation and have discovered your WHY and now want to share it with your tribe, how can you get started?

You can use the above approach to onboard new employees or partners, ensuring that the tribe’s WHY stays alive as the organisation grows. It’s a simple three-step process, conducted with fifty people at a time in a workshop lasting 3-4 days.

Step 1: Share the experience (90 minutes)

Begin the workshop by reviewing the Golden Circles and the concept of WHY

After you review the Golden Circle, invite one or two members who participated in the WHY discovery process refer xxx

Explain to them in advance that they should not start by revealing the WHY statement straight off. Instead, they should convey to their colleagues how the discovery experience felt. Let these team members do the majority of the talking.

But in case you need to help them get rolling (or keep rolling) here are some questions to tuck in your back pocket. Pick and choose the ones you like and feel free to add your own

  • Tell us what happened during the WHY discovery process
  • What are some of the stories colleagues shared that particularly resonated with you?
  • What were some of the high points of the session?
  • How did the group respond?
  • What did you learn about your organisation or coworkers that you didn’t know before?
  • How does what you heard during the session make you feel about working here?
  • What inspired you about the WHY discovery process?

As your speakers get going, the other members of the group will probably want to ask them questions as well. Encourage everyone to do so, and let the conversation flow. The more the group engages in the discussion, the more they will understand the value of the WHY and the more they will contribute to the workshop.

There is no time limit to this part of the exercise. So don’t rush it. Read the energy in the room.

Step 2: Help others own their WHY

Now for the big reveal: you’ll soon be sharing the WHY statement drafted at the discovery session. The best way to begin is by introducing the composition of the statement:

Introduce statement template

Explain that the WHY statement the tribe members will soon see was discovered (not created) via the themes that emerged from the stories their colleagues shared.

Show the flip charts from the WHY discovery where the Candidates words and phrases were recorded.

Talk about the process by which you helped whittle these down to a single WHY statement.

Retell participants’ specific stories whenever that seems helpful. These stories will help bring the WHY to life.

If you still have the flip-chart pages from the WHY Discovery process or even pictures of them, now would be a great time to share them.

Seeing those marked up pages with words crossed out and themes circled can help everyone who wasn’t there get an idea of how it all came together.

“If every member of a team doesn’t grow together, they will grow apart.”

When you finally arrive at the flip-chart page that reveals the WHY statement, read it out aloud and then give the group a chance to take it in.

This is the moment where things can get a little tricky. People can get hung up on words rather than the meaning and feeling behind the words. It is important to take a few moments here to let everyone know words aren’t perfect.

This is just the first iteration or an early iteration of the WHY statement. Let them know that sometimes the words used in a WHY statement may change a little over time, although the feeling behind the WHY does not. Encourage them to withhold their critiques of the specific language, for now, and to focus instead on what the WHY might look like in action.

See if you can get everyone to agree that they have a shared sense – a feeling – for the WHY, even if its articulation is not, in their minds, 100 per cent perfect. This will help you avoid semantic quicksand and keep the momentum going.

Some of the common reasons why a WHY has not resonated with people include:

  • In the past, the organisation hasn’t always lived its WHY
  • The WHY doesn’t align with what the organisation and / or the team members have agreed on as their current strategy
  • Some team members feel it’s right but don’t believe all employees will get behind the WHY, so they feel the need to change it
  • Occasionally, a team member who doesn’t resonate with the WHY isn’t a great fit for the company
  • If the majority of the room isn’t on board with the WHY statement, there is a good chance it needs more refining

If everyone is not in consensus about the WHY, that’s ok. Your goal is not to convince everyone to buy in, but to provide an environment in which they have the opportunity to be inspired by it. Remember, the whole idea behind articulating the WHY is so that we can work together to make positive change in the world.

Now that everyone has a good understanding of the WHY and its underlying themes and stories, they are ready to be split into groups to carry on the conversation. Ideally, each group will include three to eight people. The groups should be small enough that an effective exchange of ideas can happen. Each group needs to report back to the room at the end of this section, so make sure you don’t have too many groups.

One way to encourage ownership of the WHY is to have each group share personal experiences that support it. Here are some prompts to get them started:

  • Tell a specific story about the reason you love working in this organisation
  • Share a story when you felt proud to be part of this tribe
  • What about the story you just shared validates our WHY?
  • Who in our organisation best embodies our WHY?

Give each group its own flip chart and have the participants write down their answers to each of these questions as a list of short sentences or phrases, with an emphasis on stories. Just as in the Why Discovery session, the stories that carry the most meaning will be the ones that are the most specific and human.

Allow at least twenty to thirty minutes for this exercise. More often than not, you’ll need to bring the segment to a close due to a lack of time, not due to a lack of conversation among the participants. After you call halt, have each group report on their discussion to the rest of the team. That should take about five to seven minutes per group.

When people get passionate about their personal experiences line up with the WHY, it means they are starting to take ownership of it, which reinforces their connection to the work and to each other.

Channel the energy generated by this exercise into the final piece of the workshop.

Step 3: Explore New Opportunities

Our WHY comes from our past; but it’s promise and value lie in the future. An inspiring, clearly articulated WHY acts as a springboard for new and different ways an organisation can move forward.

This step is called the “Conversation of Possibility.”

This is the time for participants to throw out ideas about how the organisation, guided by its WHY, can advance in new or different ways. This is more than your average brainstorming session. Where ideas stall before we even get started and prevent ourselves from taking action.

We limit our progress to small steps, when we could be taking giant steps.

A conversation of possibility keeps us away from that excessively safe path. It gives us permission to change our thinking and an opportunity to get out of our own way.

Divide participants into the same groups as before. Explain that in a Conversation of Possibility, resource constraints do not apply. Encourage participants to share any and all ideas – after all, you never where they will lead. We’ve seen people bring up an idea they themselves advertised in advance as stupid and then watch as the group transformed it into something everyone was eager to implement. The bigger the ideas the better. Nothing is off the table. Nothing is impossible. Nothing is “stupid”.

At the same time make sure everyone understands that a ‘Conversation of Possibility’ is just that – a conversation. If you surface an idea and it is well received, that does not imply that you are now committed to taking it forward. If people fear that offering a suggestion will stick them with making it a reality, they may keep their most ambitious ideas to themselves. It is important to state that a Conversation of Possibility is full of possibility yet requires no commitment.

There are just two rules for this exercise:

  • Every idea must align with the WHY
  • Group members can add new ideas or build on someone else’s. They cannot say “No way,” “That wont work” or “We can’t do that” – that is not the conversation that we are in.

To get things started, instruct the groups to answer the question:

  • Knowing this is our WHY, what could be possible inside our organisation? (For example, think about what systems and processes might be modified or introduced.)

The idea here is to get the team looking inward. Remember we must practice what we preach. We must be what we say we are. This is the opportunity to ensure the things we say and the things we do inside the organisation are a reflection of who we truly are.

People on the inside should first live the WHY for each other; after that, they can focus on how the WHY affects those on the outside. Many organisations want to go directly to a client or product focus. Encourage them to stay in an internal conversation first, and assure them we’ll get to the WHATs next. The question above can get them started.

After 10 minutes or so, throw out a new question:

Given the WHY of this organisation, what other WHATs are possible? (For example, think about what else we could offer by way of products or services, or the way we communicate with the people we serve.)

So often, organisations get comfortable providing their core offerings and don’t consider what other products, services or partnerships could help them live their WHY. (If Apple had done that, none of us would have i-Phones, iPads or iTunes.)

By specifically asking participants to explore new products or services, this question aims to inspire them to realise that a product can be wildly different from their current offering and still be 100 per cent compatible with the organisation’s WHY.

The groups should write their thoughts on their flip charts. After twenty to thirty minutes, ask them to report to the room. As people hear what other groups have to say, they may be inspired to think of even more possibilities.

To complete the conversation of possibility, ask if anyone would like to make a commitment to carry forward the work of the WHY. Specifically, you should ask for commitments to:

Be “WHY Champions” who will keep the WHY alive every day by living it and sharing it with others.

Take any of the possibilities identified by the team and turn them into action

The goal is that by the end of this workshop, team members who had no part in the discovery process will be starting to take ownership of the WHY, which releases energy and inspiration. Each participant will have started to bring the WHY alive with stories of their own. The more they talk about it, the more the WHY starts to take hold.

This is how to begin to scale the power of WHY

Back to Blog

Get Mark's thought-provoking exploration straight into your inbox