“Start with why”— when it makes sense and when it doesn’t

When you first discover Simon Sinek, two things strike you:

His inspirational vision of the organization makes you think: “I wish the people I work for were all thinking the same way”,

But that feeling is even more reinforced by how fluid his ideas on management are.

So let’s quickly go back on Sinek’s argument about management:

Sinek is mostly famous for his theory called the “Golden circle” from his book “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Actions”.

Sinek sums up his theory by drawing the golden circle:

1. Each organization starts with the “what”: they know what they do.

2. Most of them know the “how” they do it.

3. But very few today know the “why” of what they do.

According to him, consumers do not buy a product because of its performance or its technical features; rather, consumers buy a product because they identify with the vision of the organization selling it.

And this works with the employees of the organization too: when employees identify with the vision of their organization, they are even more motivated and committed to their job.

Therefore, according to Sinek, every organization should work on its “why” rather than its “what”.

Sinek applies his concept to the most successful companies of this decade: Apple, Google, Uber; they all provide their customers and employees with a “why”. For Sinek, the benefits of this approach no longer need to be demonstrated; you can have a better retention and greater results from your employees and at the same time, your customers will be more likely to buy your products at a higher price than your competitors, which results in your company expanding its market share…

Sinek is undeniably a great public speaker and his theory seems crystal clear when you hear it for the first time. But when you step back, a few questions do arise:

What about the huge conglomerates that own brands in many sectors, like Procter and Gamble, Virgin or Unilever? What about the organizations that do research and development in so many fields? Even Google today is involved in automated cars, biotechnologies, worldwide Internet or automation. How do you get one single “why” out of that? Theory is one thing, applying it is quite another.

We doubt Virgin succeeds in motivating its employees and creating customer retention with the vision you can find on its website: “The Virgin group supports the Branson family and the growth of the Virgin brand by developing and nurturing valuable Virgin businesses”.

That is not a proper example of what Sinek calls a “vision”, but then, how do you explain the success of the British conglomerate?

From that example, we can acknowledge two things:

First, while the “why” is a great concept that can be key to success for businesses, it seems to work way easier under certain conditions and for some industries: for a disruptive Business-to-Consumer company, that concept definitely looks relevant and useful,

Secondly, the “why” is not the only key to success: just take the top 50 worldwide companies and have a look: how many of them have defined a clear “why”? Yet these conglomerates dominate today’s world.

Maybe Sinek’s concept works in a world run by Google, Apple and Uber, with disruptive entrepreneurs and a break-neck competition in every sector. In short, it works in a world that operates under “perfect competition”—a competitive market where monopolies don’t exist, where every entrepreneur can access the same resources and information. But that is sadly not the case today in many industries and Sinek’s concept demonstrates great insights under certain conditions, and limitations under others.