Why, why, why?

People don’t buy what you do they buy why you do it. So says Simon Sinek in his book Start with Why. Most organisations just tell you what they do or how they do it, but Sinek argues that great companies start by answering the following why questions:

  1. Why does your organisation exist?
  2. Why do you get out of bed in the morning?
  3. Why should anyone care?

He gives the example of Apple as a company who starts with why, as follows:

  • Why? Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.
  • What? The way we challenge the status quo, we make our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user friendly.
  • How? We happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?

We’ve been reminded of this book and asking ourselves these questions a lot recently both for ourselves as part of a couple of different projects, which we wanted to share through this post.

First of all, see below the mission statements of some very famous companies. Can you guess where they are from?

  1. To inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow.
  2. To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
  3. To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.
  4. To refresh the world… To inspire moments of optimism and happiness…To create value and make a difference.
  5. To create healthy happier longer lives.

How many can you guess, and more importantly which is most meaningful and which do you believe? The answers are at the bottom of this post. I find it interesting that most of these, with the exception of number 2, are quite emotionally driven. Is this a reaction to the mechanistic way we micro-manage most businesses these days?

Asking why is also a great question in creative problem solving. The ‘5 Why’s Technique’ is an iterative question-asking technique used to explore the cause and effect relationships underlying a particular problem. The “5” in the name derives from an empirical observation on the number of iterations typically required to resolve the problem. Three examples of the 5 Why’s Technique are as follows:

Example 1 – The car won’t start.

  1. The car battery is dead. (first why)
  2. The alternator is not functioning. (second why)
  3. The alternator belt has broken. (third why)
  4. The alternator belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced. (fourth why)
  5. The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule. (fifth why, a root cause)
  6. Replacement parts are not available because of the extreme age of the vehicle. (sixth why, optional footnote)

Example 2 – The patient was late to the operating theatre.

  1. There was a long wait for a trolley. (first why)
  2. A replacement trolley had to be found. (second why)
  3. The original trolley’s safety rail was worn and had broken. (third why)
  4. It had not been regularly checked for wear. (fourth why)
  5. There is no equipment maintenance schedule. (fifth why, a root cause)

Example 3 – Our client is unhappy

  1. Because we didn’t deliver our services when we said we would. (first why)
  2. The job took much longer than we thought it would. (second why)
  3. Because we underestimated the complexity of the job. (third why)
  4. Because we made a quick estimate of the time needed to complete it, and didn’t list the individual stages needed to complete the project. (fourth why)
  5. Because we were running behind on other projects. We clearly need to review our time estimation and specification procedures.(fifth why, a root cause)

It is important to note that the real root cause should point toward a process that is not working well or does not exist. People will often observe that answers seem to point towards not enough time, investments, or manpower. These answers may be true, but they are often out of our control. Therefore, instead ask why did the process fail? A key phrase to keep in mind in any 5 Why exercise is “people do not fail, processes do”.

Coming back to Sinek’s original questions, in terms of how we would answer them ourselves I would attempt the following:

  • Why? We believe in being open because in a connected world it’s primarily through our trusted relationships that we will survive and thrive.
  • What? We help others to be more open to unlock new relationships, new skills and new value, through partnership and networks.
  • How? We help organisations open up safely and productively, through collaborative workshops and by connecting them to new innovators online.

In summary, the answer to why questions is seldom straight-forward but tends to be some combination of being able to act faster, better, cheaper in some way. But it helps to dig a little deeper, to ask why again a few times to get to the root cause or motivation. It can be very revealing and save a lot of time by focussing on the right problem and can even help to point towards the solution. So next time you are communicating or problem solving, try starting with why, and see what difference it makes.


Answers to the mission statements pop quiz are as follows: 1. LEGO 2. Google 3. Nike 4. Coke 5. Bupa

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