Innovator: Start with “Why!”

By Shlomo Maital        


  As a management educator, I teach a great many concepts, “tools”, methods, etc. to help my students be more effective at innovation.  I listen closely to their reactions, because the only real test of a ‘tool’ is whether it ‘resonates’ with students and leads them to effective action and creativity. 

   One of the tools that resonates most powerfully, among all groups – young, old, senior, junior, startups, established firms, high-tech, low-tech – is Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why”. *  Sinek has written a successful book and has done a viral TEDx 18-minute video that has been viewed by millions.  Here is his simple idea.

       Most innovation follows this sequence:  What shall I invent?  How will I do it?  Who will buy it? And..(sometimes) why am I doing this? 

      There is a better sequence.  It follows the structure of our brains, according to Sinek.  It goes as follows:

       Why?  (Why am I working on this innovation?  Why do people need and want it?).   The ‘why’ question also subsumes the ‘who’, because you cannot define a rationale without knowing clearly who is the focus.   After the ‘why’ is clearly established,  both for the innovator and those who he/she seeks as clients, comes the what:   What shall I innovate?  Then, how will I innovate it?  

      Start with why.

     Here is Sinek’s opening example.  Samuel Pierpoint Langley, distinguished former Harvard researcher and Smithsonian scholar,  set out, in the early 1900’s, to build the first airplane.  He had everything. He had a $50,000 grant (several million dollars in today’s dollars). He had powerful friends (Andrew Carnegie).  He had the press following him everywhere.  He had the top brains of his time on his team.

    A few hundred miles away, Orville and Wilbur Wright worked on the same project.  They had nothing. No college degree. No grant. No money.  No talented team. No press interest.  Nothing.  Yet on Dec. 17, 1903, on a cold winter day, Orville and Wilbur conquered manned flight for the first time.   And Langley quit and dismantled his project on that very same day.

    Why did the Wright Brothers win?  Because of ‘why’.  They were driven to conquer manned flight.  They crashed, rebuilt, crashed…  and never gave up.  They were driven by ‘why’ —  to change the world by enabling human beings to fly.  Langley, in contrast, sought fame and wealth.  He had to be first.  To be second, to help the Wright brothers, to build on their achievement, in order to achieve the goal of manned flight and change the world, that was not in his mind.  The day he heard of the Wright Bros’ achievement, he quit.  And today nobody remembers him at all. 

    Start with why.  People buy Apple products, claims Sinek, because of the why – people buy them because they’re cool, because they’re different, because they’re simple, beautifully designed…. And they’ll buy many different Apple products – tablets, smartphones, laptops, anything, for that reason.  Other firms sell the ‘what’ – ours is better, faster, stronger, cheaper.  Sell the ‘why’.  Tell people why they should buy your product or service.  But first, figure it out for yourself.   

   Figure out your own ‘why’.  What is YOUR why?  What is your deepest passion? Why will you invest all your energy, skill, brainpower, creativity, and passion, in some endeavor?  I meet all too many young people who lack a ‘why’.  Money alone is not an adequate why for anyone.  Too many people figure that out when it is too late. 

    As Guy Kawasaki counsels,   “make meaning, not money”.   

  • Simon Sinek, START WITH WHY.  How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. Portfolio/Penguin, new edition 2011.