Start with Why

Do you know your or your company’s why? The purpose or belief that inspires you to do what you do? Most people don’t. Peter Docker explains why knowing your why is so important.
Kevin Van der Straeten
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Do you know your or your company’s why? The purpose or belief that inspires you to do what you do? Most people don’t. Peter Docker explains why knowing your why is so important.


Hi Peter, welcome in the studio.


Well, good morning.


We’re going to talk about why today, but why why?


Why why? Well, we use the word ‘why’ as shorthand for: what is your cause, what is your belief, what’s your higher purpose? Why do you get out of bed each day? And perhaps more importantly: why should anyone else care? So, that’s what we mean by ‘why.’ And the reason this is important is because most of us, whether it’s as individuals or as businesses, we think, act, and communicate, starting with what it is that we do. TV presenter or an accountant or a lawyer or whatever. But the inspired organizations, the inspired leaders, and those organizations that seem to consistently outperform others, they think, act, and communicate, starting with why it is they do what they do.


Do you have some examples of companies who do that?


Sure. The example that we often use is Apple. Love them or hate them; you cannot deny that they consistently outperform every other computer organization out there. This is the example that my dear friend and colleague Simon Sinek used in his very well-known Ted Talk. In fact the third-most downloaded of all time, called ‘Start with Why.’ He introduced the notion of the golden circle. So, if you imagine three concentric circles, why, how, what, with why in the center, the how in the middle, and the what on the outside. If Apple were like any other computer organization, their marketing message would go something like this. They would start with what. They’d say, “We want to make great computers.” Then they’d then move on to the how and say, “They’re beautifully designed, wonderfully manufactured, and easy to use. Do you want to buy one?” That’s how most organizations do their branding, how most marketing messages go, and it’s really quite uninspiring. But, actually, Apple, they think, act, and communicate starting with why, and this is how they actually put out their message. They start with why by saying, “We believe everything we do challenges the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is that we make products that are beautifully designed, wonderfully manufactured, and easy to use… We just happen to make computers.” It’s the same message but the order is reversed. They start with why instead of what. And consequently the message is much more inspiring. If you’re the sort of person that believes what Apple believes, then chances are you will choose to buy their products. Whether it’s a computer or a phone, a watch or a tablet or whatever. And this is the power in thinking, acting, and communicating starting with why.


Okay. If you ask me: what’s your why… It’s a rather difficult question, to know what your why is, isn’t it?


Well, it is. This is where we link into the biology of it. If we take a cross-section of the human brain, we’ll see that it falls into two main components. The first is the neo-cortex, and relatively speaking that’s the newer part of the brain. The neo-cortex maps on to, if you like, the what’s level of the golden circle. The neo-cortex is responsible for understanding facts and figures and data, but also language. But then you have the limbic part of the brain. The limbic part of the brain maps directly on to the why and the how level of the golden circle. The limbic part of the brain is responsible for feelings, such as trust and loyalty. It’s also responsible for every decision we make, all human behavior, and yet has got no capacity for language. So, to your point, Kevin, this is why quite often we hear ourselves in our lives saying: yes, I understand all the facts and figures and data but it just doesn’t feel right. The reason we use that verb, it doesn’t feel right, is because the decision is being made by our limbic brain. Which makes all decisions but has got no capacity for language. And the best we can come up with is: It just doesn’t feel right. Or we talk about making, I don’t know, a gut decision, or leading with our hearts. It’s nothing to do with those body parts, it is the limbic brain making that decision. So this is why, or the reason it’s difficult to put into words our why. But when we do, it’s a single sentence. It allows us to use it as a filter for everything that we say and do. Whether that’s as an individual or as a business, when we use that filter it also builds trust and loyalty. You can’t direct someone to trust you. It’s something that is built up over time, it is a feeling. So, when we think, act, and communicate, starting with our why, it’s authentic, and we’re speaking directly to the part of the brain that’s responsible for all human behavior and all decision-making. And that’s why it’s worth taking the time to get your why into a single sentence.


How do you get it into a single sentence? What is the exercise you need to do to discover your own why?


Well, you used the right word there, Kevin; it is a discovery process. This isn’t a branding or marketing exercise, creating something, it’s a discovery. So, when we sit down with organizations to discover their why, what we do is, we take them through a process, where we look at the times when in their company they were particularly proud of their organization. That’s where we start. And we look at very, very specific stories. Being specific is hugely important. If we talk in generalities, it doesn’t trigger any emotional response in our brains. And it’s that emotional response that we’re after. When we talk in specifics, then it does trigger that response. So for example - I’m just making this up now, but to illustrate - if I were to say to you… There’s been a dreadful natural disaster, a tsunami over in the Philippines and 150,000 people are believed missing or feared dead… we’d say, “Well, that’s dreadful, that’s awful.” But then we’d probably move on to something else. Because we cannot compute that number of people. But if I were to say to you “That tsunami over in the Philippines, our neighbor, their son, John, is out on a diving expedition and we haven’t been able to contact him since.” Even though you don’t know my neighbor’s son it would more than likely trigger a bit of an emotional response from you. And most of us would say, “Well, is there anything I can do to help.” You see the difference? It is that specific story which is really, really important, and that’s what we focus on in a why discovery. When you get all of these stories - and we talk about the peak stories and the valley stories, so the times when it is not so good, the times that you wouldn’t want to revisit, those are important too, because they reinforce the peak stories, the times that you really do feel proud about your organization. When we gather those stories together, we see that themes come out, recurring themes that recur in each of these stories quite often. And it’s these themes then which lead to the why and allow us to put into words into a single sentence, why it is that organization exists, the contribution, the impact that they’re making in the world.


Yes. I did the exercise myself this last summer. I found it very, very… it was quite an adventure to discover the why.


It is.


I can only speak for myself, but if you see the effect on what it does to have your why clear… it’s astonishing. If people want to know more, if they want your help or the help of your organization to get to their why, how can they contact you?


Sure. Our vision is to get what we call a ‘golden circle’ on every desk. So if everybody in the world knows why it is they do what they do then they are going to find more fulfilment in the work that they do. They’re going to love their job. That’s our goal. And so we’ve been trying to scale this through online courses and through exercises that are free to download. For an individual, if you want to discover your individual why - because we all have a why… My why is to enable people to be extraordinary so they can do extraordinary things. And I use that as a filter for everything that I say and do every day. So I get a pretty good kick out of life. So, if people want to discover their why, then you can find a number of tools on the website. Which many of them are free to download to get you into this why conversation. If you’re an organization or a team and you want to discover your why… We put together a book because we get these requests so much. So, I’ve written a book with Simon Sinek and my other colleague David Mead, putting all of our experiences into a book which I think is coming out in September called Find Your Why. So you can find it in normal bookstore places already. So, that’s what people can do to get into this journey. Well, actually, can I tell a quick story Kevin, have we got time for that?


Sure, go ahead.


It’s one I love telling. I have two grown-up kids and one of their friends, let’s call her Chloe. She was, or is, a very bright young woman. She got a scholarship some years ago to Oxford University, which is quite a good place to go. And she was being head-hunted towards the end of her course and she went along to this interview. It was the standard old-school interview where the candidate sits on the lonely chair in the middle of the room, facing a panel of four grey-suited guys, you know the sort of…




…old-school interview, not very comfortable at all. And one of the guys, shuffling his papers as Chloe sat down, looked up at her eventually and said, “So, I see, Chloe, that you’ve applied for this position. What is it that you’re going to bring to our organization?” Now, thankfully, I’d sat down with Chloe a few months previously and we’d done a why discovery. So she sat there quite calmly, with her hands in her lap, she said, “Well, before I answer that, let me tell you why I get out of bed every day.” She said: I get out of bed every day inspired to walk alongside others to enable them to be all they can be. I happen to notice from your website, that’s exactly the sort of thing that you believe in too. So, why wouldn’t I apply to come and work with you? I also have a number of skills and capabilities which I think are going to help contribute to creating the vision of the world that you imagine.” What do you think happened, Kevin, at that interview?


I think she got the job.


Did she get the job?


Yes, I think so.


Course she got the job. Because she spoke directly to their limbic brains directly to what it is that they believed but probably couldn’t even put into words themselves. And at that moment, they all made the decision, probably along lines of, “This woman, she is one of us.” You know?




That’s the sort of phrase we use, she’s one of us, let’s get her in here. They then looked at her CV, her résumé, and saw, you know, she’d been at college, didn’t have much experience. But then they thought, oh well, she hasn’t got much experience but she’s only just coming out of university. That’s okay, she’ll pick it up. Now, let’s find a position where we can employ this person.




Because she is one of us. That’s how it works. This is how we are hardwired as human beings. And this is not about manipulation, this is about being authentic and as calm as Chloe was in this example. She didn’t have to memorize stock answers to the usual interview questions. She just sat there, quite comfortably, quite authentic, knowing what she believed. And was able to respond to that question and any others in an authentic, genuine way, just being who she truly was. And that is what generates trust and loyalty. They thought, yes, we’ve got a connection with this person, let’s get her onboard. This is the reason that it’s so valuable to be able to put into words why it is we do what we do, our higher purpose, our cause, our belief. Because then it opens up a whole new range of possibilities of what we can do. I presume, Kevin, that you love the work you do.




Because there’s a lot of effort that goes into this and you’re passionate about sharing ideas with people. And if we looked at why there’re probably lots of other whats that you could do too to feel equally fulfilled by the work that you do. So, it opens up possibility, rather than closing down possibility, when we know our why.


Okay Peter, thank you very much for your time.


You’re very welcome.


And you at home, thank you for watching our show. I hope to see you next week.