Principle 1: Define your ‘why’


Think of the last important item that you bought and why.

For me it was a spiral cutter (I quite like cooking…). When I bought it I searched for a product that would match my needs (to cut vegetables into various forms of spiral, to be easy to clean, to be small enough to hide in a cupboard away from embarrassing comments…) and when I found it, which for those who are interested I did at one of my wife’s favourite shops, Lakeland, I bought it.

My life with vegetables in the kitchen changed (yes I know its sad). I now have healthy spaghetti, courgettes that don’t come in discs and sweet potato has become a versatile accompaniment. My eating habits have altered.

I did this without big Powerpoints, over attentive management, great scorecards or coercive job descriptions. The change flowed from an underlying desire to find healthier, tastier ways of eating …all of which seem to involve vegetables. The move to spiral shaped vegetables was a means to fulfilling better the rationale for what I eat.

This is an illustration of first principle for winning hearts and minds in change: Do not start with the change at all but  revisit your purpose for being there. Just as this underlies sustainable changes in our personal life it is similarly valuable in an organisational change.

Re-stoking the fires of intentionaility is a vital precursor to change, especially as we have such a tendency to lose our sense of ‘why’ we are here.

Why is a great place to start

Simon Sinek’s book and TED talk ‘Start with Why’ is a great exposition of the power of this principle in helping people to commit to change.  His ‘Golden Circle’ has at its heart the question ‘why?’. He illustrates this with his explanation of the way that Apple approaches business and a (fictional) marketing motivation that runs…

“With everything we do, we aim to challenge the status quo. We aim to think differently. Our products are user friendly, beautifully designed, and easy to use. We just happen to make …. Want to buy one?”

He contrasts this with the typical rationale for buying a product given by companies which focuses on the what: “We make great … They’re user friendly, beautifully designed, and easy to use. Want to buy one?”

Many companies, especially those with limited points of difference from competitors use this latter approach when talking to customers. As leaders, we too often do the same. We launch into changes with a focus on its features, challenges and benefits. We defend the change with a rationale for why it is good. We anticipate objections and look for wins and losses and in the process we fall straight into the trap of transacting with people and competing with their motivations, rather than leveraging the organisational reasons for being there to help them make the best decision.

It is a mistake.

The change buying cycle

Leading for hearts and minds is quite different. Change is really a buying cycle* (or even a buy-in cycle) and the starting point is the value that people seek in the context in which change is introduced.

It is easy to misinterpret Sinek’s insight and to think that to tackle ‘why’ is to focus on ‘why’ to make the change – but that is not the ‘why’. The ‘why’ is in the intentions and purposes which people bring into the situation from their context and position. It is much more strategic – much more about underlying organisational goals and purposes.

This has profound implications for organisations of all forms that want to develop a more adaptive culture and help staff to commit wholeheartedly to changes. It also generates three vital, foundational and powerful leadership tasks:

1. Develop intentionality

Organisations need to cultivate a clear ‘reason for being’ – an intentionality about why they exist.

‘Ah! A mission statement,’ you may say. But then maybe you have not read many of these anodyne paragraphs. Too often their relevance is to be taken from the fact that someone has to go and find it to be able to remember it. That is not what I have in mind. Intentionality is not the same as a strategy, nor is it fulfilled by any statement about shareholder value.

It is a clear sense of what the organisation adds to society and why it needs to be there.

To be real this must be well thought through and engaging. It must be real. It must become the touchstone for prioritisation in the organisation; a motivating factor in the branding of the business; a key factor in recruiting people; and a thread that runs through what gets done. It must live.

At the same time it will become the essential base against which any change must be shaped. In doing so the change becomes something that helps fulfil this purpose – just as a product is chosen because it fulfils the needs of the buyer.

2. Focus on the purpose of a role

The ‘reason for being’ must embrace the organisation (and the relevant part of it that the change is taking place in) and be big enough for everyone.  Additionally each individual needs a motivating purpose in their role or area. Why does it exist? What is so important about it? The purpose must be clear and important. The reasons become the rationale that drives performance and commitment to achievement in the role. It is the intrinsic reason why we do what we do. Promoting real reflection on this is a powerful engine for commitment. In the context of a clear organisational ‘why’, this helps produce something specific for each person.

3. Encourage the ‘best me’

The first two steps then set up an opportunity for leaders to encourage their teams to always reach for the best version of their roles. It sets a standard to worked towards that can be very helpful both for individuals and the organisation.

The rationale becomes the anchor to the definition of the ‘best me’ I can be, expressed in character and outcomes rather than features. It enables reflection on the best ways to realise often stretching or conflicting goals and it enables everyone to engage in positive questioning of their part in the organisation fulfilling its purpose in any and every area.

How might this look?

How might you actually work on this locally…

  • Encourage staff to watch the Simon Sinek TED video and discuss what they see as the organisation’s reason for being
  • Discuss what staff think of the ‘why’ of the organisation, emerging ideas, convictions and invite challenge (what do you think? what’s your view? How does your role fit in this?)
  • Orchestrate a process of challenge for activities, products or policies that do not live up to the purpose
  • Revisit mission and vision statements in the Leadership Team and bring them to life
  • Revise any staff review process to refocus on organisation and role purpose
  • Town hall style ‘jams’ for purpose and its implications on priorities

It is not that odd

Such activities are not really that odd. Variations of this happen in many organisations – sometimes in leadership away days, strategy sessions or planning events – often in the conversations that people have up and down the enterprise. They happen in large and small organisations.

Nor are such activities that new and they deliver real value. In September 1982, someone laced the brand leading US analgesic, Tylenol, with cyanide. This killed 7 people in Chicago. The manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, acted quickly and very publicly, recalling all retail stock of the brand (against the initial advice of the authorities). This was no small action for a product that was estimated to contribute 15-20% of its profit and to be growing rapidly in a $1bn+ market.

Its approach, an exemplar of effective crisis management, was driven by its corporate philosophy – ‘Our Credo” which the chairman, Jim Burke, has spent months rejuvenating in ‘Credo Challenge’ discussions up and down the corporation in the years before the incident. The speed and thoroughness of the response from withdrawal to subsequent triumphant reintroduction was orchestrated by the commitment to this purpose, their organisational ‘why’.

“It was our credo that prompted the decisions that enabled us to make the right early decisions that eventually led to the comeback phase,” said David R. Clare, the president of Johnson & Johnson at the time.


So before change, start reflecting on your organisation’s ‘why’.


*My favourite is Neil Rackham’s if you would like a good example