For already a decade, Simon Sinek’s book “Start with Why” and his “Golden Circle” are wildly popular. Millions have bought the book and tens of millions have watched Sinek’s TED talks over the past years. Furthermore, looking at all the four and five-star ratings, reviews and testimonials, Sinek’s ideas are appreciated too. Despite this great uptake—and also because of it—it is useful to reflect a moment on whether or not “starting with why” as basis for strategy is good advice.
The idea and its success
Sinek’s story is simple and compelling: great companies start with “why,” unlike everybody else who starts with “how” and “what.” “What” refers to describing a company’s products and services, “how” to what is unique about them and “why” to the underlying purpose or reason of offering them in the first place. Along those lines he draws a picture with three circles with “why” in the middle, “how” around it and “what” around that: the “Golden Circle.”
Looking at just its contents, it is amazing that this story appeals to so many people for so many years. What it says is so basic that one would expect that it should be hardly worth noticing. The message is simply that companies should derive what they do and how they do it from a purpose that explains why they do it in the first place. It doesn’t tell us how to do this and it is not even new or unique. It echoes the decades-long emphasis on mission and vision statements and the importance of purpose that we find throughout the strategy literature and in virtually every strategy textbook.
So what explains its success? Like most business guru-type messages, the brilliance is in the packaging. Sinek’s message is appealing exactly because of its simplicity. Furthermore, it is brought in an entertaining style and marketed using smart rhetorical tricks. By referring to how the brain is constructed, for example, the story gets a neuropsychological character. By positioning himself as the humble observer who stumbled upon this undeniable truth, Sinek suggests his ideas are based on solid scientific inquiry. And by referring to examples such as Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King and the Wright brothers, the story appeals to our secret desire to be great like them.
If we analyze the story a bit closer, though, much of it doesn’t really hold. As any neuroscientist can tell you, the story about how the brain is wired to think in terms of why, how and what is a bit of a stretch. Furthermore, the evidence that is presented is selective and anecdotal. In fact, if we adopt proper scientific standards, there is no empirical evidence whatsoever that companies who start with why are more successful than companies that don’t. Finally, the examples that are used—especially Martin Luther King and the Wright brothers—are largely irrelevant and out of context: a Baptist minister leading the Civil Rights Movement and the creators of the first airplane. Very inspiring, but mostly irrelevant to business.
Interestingly, these problems with “Start with Why” have no effect on its popularity or appreciation. One reason, I think, is that its message falls on fertile ground. People just like to hear that they should look for and talk about the big why in their lives rather than worry about the mundane what and how. The same is true for the everlasting popularity of mission and vision statements. Even though there is no empirical evidence that these lead to more success, organizations seem to be almost addicted to formulating them. Sinek smartly helps fulfil this desire by repackaging an existing idea into an attractive simple form.
Benefits and risks
Starting with “why” certainly has benefits. First, it reminds us to move the attention away from technicalities to the bigger picture. For those focusing on selling laundry lists of features and specs, this may help to actually think about why a customer would buy a product or service from them. Second, it also reminds us to make things not more complicated than necessary. Compared to formulating extensive mission and vision statements, focusing just on the “why” might help keep things simple. Third, it also helps us reflect on what we are doing and why we are doing it in the first place. As such, the Golden Circle might serve as an effective tool for reflection.
But there are risks as well. The most important ones are:
- There is no empirical evidence for what is being said. Even though “starting with why” sounds appealing and intuitive, there is no evidence that it works. Therefore, you might want to temper overly high hopes. Also, you might want to think of the opportunity costs: maybe you could have used the time and money spent on finding your “why” more effectively on other things.
- It stimulates oversimplistic thinking. Even though the Golden Circle is appealing, it vastly oversimplifies the complexity of doing business. Strategy, and business more generally, are about many other things that cannot be reduced to a simple why, how and what. We might wish this were true, but it isn’t.
- It may lead to a perpetual search for the big WHY. Finding a real answer to the “why” question can be tremendously difficult and leading to endless searches for the root cause behind what the business is doing. But a large part of doing business is just that: doing business.
- It can lead to selling hot air. If a company is really driven by a strong “why,” it probably knows this and uses it. If invented after the fact, though focusing on the “why” largely is a matter of selling fiction. Furthermore, many customers—especially business-to-business—may just want proper products and services. This means that the “what” and “how” may be more important to them than the “why.”
- It can lead to overly egocentric organizations. Sinek takes our own “why” as starting point, but why would that really matter? Illustrative is his example of Steve Jobs who wanted to “put a ding in the universe.” It is presented as a great example of starting with why. But how does the world benefit from a ding in the universe? This “why” reflects a sole person’s desire not to be forgotten, but that might not necessarily be a good basis for business.
Sinek’s Golden Circle appeals strongly to many and alludes to some deep desire to think about why we do the things we do. It has strengths, the most important of which is probably that it has made people think and reflect more on their organizations and activities. And when done for real, “starting with why” can be a really good idea. However, as we have seen above, there are a number of downsides too. It can be useful to take these into account and think twice whenever you find yourself, or someone else, start talking about the organization’s “why.”
This post was published earlier here on my forbes.com page.
Image credit: Getty