Sometimes the secret to success is in plain view. It appears so commonsensical that it hardly seems worth our attention, until someone brings it to our notice and suddenly it seems...brilliant.
That thought crossed my mind recently as I watched again Simon Sinek's enormously popular TED talk "How Great Leaders Inspire Action." In fact, Sinek calls his idea (as illustrated in the Golden Circle diagram) "probably the world's simplest idea." His main thesis? People are more drawn to why you do something than to what you do.
The innate power of the why behind what we do seems to be intuitively evident even to the average toddler, who repeatedly wants to know "Why?" But as we grow up and take on the complex task of running a business or a department or a project, we often become disconnected from the why. Instead we become consumed with what needs to be done and how to do it, and easily lose sight of the underlying purpose.
Case in point: When I work on proposals for engineering or environmental consulting firms, I always ask two questions: "Why is the client doing this project now? What business results does it need to achieve?" I rarely get satisfactory answers to these basic questions. Surprised? You shouldn't be. Scan the project approach sections in your firm's proposals. Look at your project descriptions. Do they answer the why question? Probably not.
So why does it matter? I've been asked that on occasion when I pressed for an answer to my two questions. "We can do the work!" I've been told. But to what end? Let me suggest, as Sinek implies, that the real value of our work is found in why we do it rather than in what we do. The why is what matters most to our clients.
The why behind your project typically consists of three components:
- The problem—The strategic, technical, and personal dimensions of the matter that is causing concern and that the client has determined needs remedy. Sometimes this is more opportunity than problem, but the fundamental motivation remains—there is a deficit between what is and what is desired.
- The consequences—The negative effects of the problem or the lack of a solution. Usually it is the consequences that drive the need for the project more than the problem itself. Thus you are wise to define how your solution not only addresses the problem, but its consequences.
- The desired outcomes—This is at the heart of why; the project is needed to achieve certain results. Ideally, your solution addresses not only the desired technical outcomes, but the strategic and personal outcomes as well.
With a fuller understanding of why the project is happening, you are better prepared to define the right scope and approach to achieve the desired outcomes.
Okay, so what? Perhaps you're thinking your firm already does a good job delivering the projects your clients need. What's the added benefit of delving deeper into the purpose of the project when the client's not asking you to? Here are a few reasons why I think it's important:
A deeper understanding of the why leads to better solutions. Technical professionals tend to be more task-oriented than goal-oriented. Clients are seeking results. Analyzing the why helps you better design the project to fulfill the client's long-term vision—the outcomes that are critical to the project's ultimate success. It helps push your team beyond the tendency to define the project primarily by its scope, schedule, and budget.
Knowing the why is critical to delivering business value. The true value of a project is realized not when it is designed or constructed, or the investigation or study is completed, but when it begins delivering a return on investment. If you want to enhance the value of your services in the eyes of clients, do a better job connecting what you do with the results they need. That involves not only understanding the why, but being able to talk about your work in terms of the business value it produces.
When the client defines the scope without explaining the why, you've effectively become a commodity. In the 40+ years I've worked in this business, I've watched our role as advisors and problem solvers gradually diminish. Increasingly clients are defining their own solutions and having us implement them, often at the lowest price. How did this happen? Well, clients are arguably more sophisticated and knowledgeable about what we do. But we've facilitated this trend by neglecting the business drivers behind our projects and focusing more on expertise than strategy.
Recognizing the why behind your work inspires better performance. Research confirms that employee engagement and performance improves when they have a clear sense of purpose. They want to know not only what to do, but why they are doing it. This is particularly true of younger workers. When you fail to adequately uncover the why behind your projects and communicate it to your staff, you miss a golden opportunity to draw out their best efforts.
Sinek says that most companies start with defining what they do, then how they do it. Many never really get to the why. The best companies, by contrast, start with the why, which better informs the how and what. They are why-driven companies.
I believe there's great potential among technical consulting and design firms to differentiate themselves by moving from being what-driven (the norm) to becoming why-driven. From being task-oriented to becoming more results-oriented. Sound too simple an idea? Well, take a closer look at your firm. Ask your colleagues how you're really doing in this regard. The secret to success just might be in plain view.