Why is “the Why” so hard?

March 10, 2022

by Management Dynamics

Knowing the purpose or reason behind your team sounds so simple that it should be easy – so why do so many teams struggle with “why”?

Having a clear purpose, reason or “Why” behind a team is the first steppingstone to igniting high-performance. It serves as the guiding light during periods of ambiguity and ensures all development and actions add meaningful value that leads to long-term growth.

These insights are well-recognised by leading academics and experts in development and high-performance. The success of Simon Sinek’s bestseller “Start with Why?” proves this. He argues Starting with Why serves as the inspiration behind trailblazing companies such as Apple, innovators such as the Wright Brothers, and revolutionaries such as Martin Luther King Jr. This fundamental principle earnt him the spot of most watched TED talk at the time.

From first-hand experience working with teams in some of the world’s leading organisation, we know just how important starting with Why is. It serves as a key foundation for high-performance and acts as a guiding light for all development – both on a personal and organisational level.

So why do teams still find Why so hard?

There are two major barriers that block teams from discovering their Why; existing misconceptions about their Why, and not realising the depth and complexities of creating a compelling purpose.

Let’s start with the misconceptions.

When we ask teams what their “Why” is, the most common response is some variation of their job description or what their team’s output is. For example, teams in Sales often respond that their reason is to sell products, or teams in Legal often respond it’s their job to ensure they are compliant with the law.

This does not encapsulate Why and more strongly relates to the results a team delivers rather than Why they do it. Results are important – but they are not why.

It is these misconceptions, or more accurately assumptions, that we make about our overall team purpose that makes Why so hard.

By taking the Why for granted – either through not considering the overall value or seeing it through a mostly transactional, results-based lens, the real Why behind a team can become obscured or lost.

But even if you know to avoid these assumptions, you still need to know the different layers behind a truly compelling “Why”.

There are 4 distinct layers that make up every compelling team reason. These are:

Why is "the why" so hard?

Layer 1: Individual

This relates to why you, the individual, choose to give up your time and energy to pursue your career in this team. Other than getting a paycheque, what motivates you to go the extra mile, and why have you chosen this job specifically? What do you aspire to, what do you enjoy about your job and the team that makes you want to leap out of bed to get into work?

Layer 2: Team

This relates to why us, as individuals, are grouped to work together. What does the organisation expect us to achieve as a group? Rather than working in silos across the company, what possible value could we produce that is the sum of more than just us as individuals? In our complex world we know that collaboration is key and Team is about identifying areas to collaborate and to unlock the full potential of the team.

Layer 3: Organisation

This plays into Simon Synek’s Starting with Why. It’s about considering the role of our team within the overall organisation’s purpose and aligning ourselves with that. It’s wider than shareholder value and we should consider how we can help other teams fulfil their roles and deliver their purpose.

Layer 4: Societal

What purpose does my team or organisation deliver to society? What do we provide that others don’t? How do we add value to our communities?

It’s important to remember that every team – and each member of the team – will have their own distinct culture and purpose and will connect to these levels to a different extent. However, creating a compelling team purpose opens up opportunities to explore untapped potential, wasted talent and opens doors for the team to perform at a higher level with higher levels of engagement.

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