Book Summary: Start With Why by Simon Sinek

Book Summary: Start With Why by Simon Sinek

Quick Summary: In Start With Why, the authors ask how some organizations and people become more innovative, influential, and profitable than others. Simon Sinek’s landmark, third-most-watched TED lecture of all time reveals the solution to that conundrum in this insightful book.  Business, politics, and technology examples from Sinek demonstrate the importance of asking “Why?” rather than “What?”

Start With Why Book Summary

Introduction

Martin Luther King Jr., Steve Jobs, and the Wright brothers all have something in common, right? At first glance, not much. Different projects for different reasons were undertaken at different times.

However, they all understood that nobody buys into ideas, projects, or products unless they understand their purpose.

It’s something you’ll find in every great leader and successful organization, says Simon Sinek. Imagine it as a sense of purpose. Those who know why they do what they do do their best work and inspire others. It is not about making money. The concept refers to engaging in purposeful activity, which often results in financial gain.

However, how do you lead in this manner? We’ll examine a framework that demonstrates how people can be inspired and how organizations can be designed for success.

Insight #1: Success comes from design, not short-term fixes

A famous story tells of a group of American car manufacturers who visited Japan to inspect its car factories. 

Although they saw many assembly lines similar to those in their own factories, one notable difference stood out. Workers in the United States tapped car doors with a rubber mallet to ensure they fit properly. This job did not exist in Japan.

When the American executives asked the Japanese guide how these plants managed without this position, the guide replied, “we design it to fit.”.

Japanese automakers didn’t look at a problem and come up with a makeshift solution – they engineered the outcome they wanted from the beginning.

There are a couple of obvious benefits to this. In the first place, a well-designed door is likely to last longer and be more structurally sound in an accident. 

The second advantage is that you don’t need to buy mallets or hire workers to wield them if you’ve designed the door correctly. It saves time, money, and hassle by eliminating a lot of waste.

In many organizations, things don’t work that way. A metaphor for how many companies around the world are run is what the American carmakers did with their mallets. Leaders often use short-term patches to achieve their goals when their original plan fails to deliver results.

Keeping things chugging along might keep things moving, but it isn’t the best option. Those who build successful companies and products follow a blueprint rather than mallets. Rather than doing things by default, they design them to work.

Regardless of the instruction leaders give, the course of action they take, or the goal they set, the decision they make begins with one thing. Some people start by hammering doors into place, while others start somewhere very different.

We will explore the second path in these insights. It is this path that guarantees long-term success. Ask yourself this simple question: Why?

Insight #2: Manipulating consumers is beneficial in the short-term, but undermines the long-term viability of firms

GM’s market share in the United States dropped from 35 to 24 percent between 1990 and 2007. 

In order to increase its sales, GM offered customers cash-back deals to compete with Asian companies like Toyota. Sales increased, but there was a catch: by 2008, the company lost $729 on every vehicle sold. There was no sustainable way to grow like that.

Manipulation can take many forms. Generally, it’s anything that tempts consumers to buy – think clearance sales, two-for-one deals, advertising hype, or claims backed by experts, like “Four out of five dentists prefer Trident.” In the short term, it’s very effective – at least, it’s a popular strategy.

A company like GM rarely reaps the long-term benefits of this strategy. The “price game” is one of the most common forms of manipulation. Drop your prices low enough, and your products will sell. 

For sellers, this is catnip. The short-term gain is incredible, but it quickly becomes a habit that is hard to break. Customers will be reluctant to pay more if your prices are lower. 

As a result, margins are slimmer, which can only be offset by more sales, which in turn require even lower prices.

The profitability of companies that sink their prices while maintaining profitability tends to suffer. Wal-Mart, for example, has a healthy bottom line. 

However, its reputation has been wrecked. Cutting costs elsewhere is the only way a company can make money while offering consumers constant bargains. As of today, Walmart is notorious for shoddy treatment of its underpaid and overworked employees working in its US stores.

Moreover, manipulation can drive transactions – individual sales – but it does not create loyalty. This is evident when you consider rewards. If you lose your kitten and reward the finder with a reward, for example, you aren’t trying to build a relationship with them – you just want your cat back.

A business can’t be sustained on that basis. After General Motors dropped its financially ruinous cash-back policy, customers abandoned the company and started buying Asian vehicles instead. There was only one factor that tilted the scales in GM’s favor: a transactional reward. Once that factor was eliminated, there were no other options.

What is the alternative? Let’s find out!

Insight #3: Apple doesn’t just sell products. The company affirms its customers’ values and beliefs

Apple is no different from any other computer company when it comes down to it. Likewise, Dell, HP, and Toshiba all have some great systems and some that don’t. 

For publicizing their products, all four firms have equal access to resources, talent, and media channels. In terms of rationality, it’s not important which company makes the best product – they’re all pretty good.

It doesn’t work that way. The truth is that people pay more for Apple devices and wait in line for hours to buy the latest iPhone. Why is this?

Apple is different in this way. It is not associated with a single product category like its competitors. That’s unusual. Computers are usually purchased from one company, cell phones from another, and MP3 players from a third company. Apple is a huge success in all three categories.

There’s a reason for this: the why is more important than the what. Let’s look at it.

The pitch of most organizations is straightforward. They explain what they do, explain why they’re better than their competitors, and close with a call to action. Like most companies, Apple would pitch its products as follows: “We make great computers, they’re beautifully designed and user-friendly – would you like one?”

Apple doesn’t say that. Here is the message that has made it one of the most successful companies in history:

“Everything we do is about challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently, and we prove this by making beautiful, user-friendly products. Oh, and we also happen to make great computers. Wanna buy one?”

Have you noticed the difference? There is no manipulation or free stuff here. It isn’t really about products at all. Apple does not tell us what it makes, but why it does what it does.

Starting with why is a great way to begin. Apple isn’t telling us to buy a Mac or an iPhone because they’re more appealing than rival devices, or because they’ve been endorsed by celebrities. It’s saying that Apple is the right company if we believe in creativity and thinking outside the box as well. Quite simply, it “gets us” – it views us as people with values and beliefs rather than simply as consumers.

Why does this kind of message work so well? The answer lies in human biology.

Insight #4: We don’t control our decisions with our rational brain

Here’s a tricky question: Why do you love your significant other? 

Often, we’ll say something like, “Well, I don’t know – she’s funny and smart.” 

Nevertheless, there are millions, even billions, of funny and smart people with whom we do not want to spend time. Then again, we could say, “He completes me.” But how on earth does one find someone who does that?

It’s not the reasons we fall in love that matter – they’re just attempts to describe something that’s virtually impossible to describe. That’s why.

You can see three areas of the human brain in a cross-section. The neocortex is the part that has recently evolved. It is responsible for rational thinking and language. 

The limbic brain is divided into two parts. They influence feelings such as loyalty and trust, as well as decision-making. Crucially, these older areas lack the ability to communicate. You can’t explain why you love someone, so that’s why it’s so hard to describe.

This also explains why companies fail to connect with their customers. Imagine you are selling a television. You explain its price, specs, and features to the customer. Using all of this data is a great way to engage the neocortex, but here’s the problem: People can process vast amounts of complex information, but information isn’t what motivates them.

You need to access the limbic brain if you want to change behavior. Take laundry detergent as an example.

Companies in the United States have advertised for years that their detergents make your whites whiter and your colors brighter. Initially, this sounded like a good value proposition – after all, that’s what consumers wanted from their detergent, according to market research. 

Researchers spent the entire time discussing how their products worked since they asked consumers what they wanted. Others claimed that their patented color enhancers were the miracle ingredient.

We don’t clean our clothes for that reason. All detergents are made to clean our clothes, so we assume this is the case. According to an anthropological study, when we take our clothes out of the machine, we don’t hold them up to the light to see how bright they are. We smell them instead. Objective cleanliness doesn’t matter as much as how we feel.

There was a false assumption underlying the entire detergent industry. It just goes to show why it’s important to start at the beginning!

Insight #5: Innovation spreads fast when a small number of true believers champion it

Would you consider spending $40,000 on a TV that might be the next big thing, but might just be a flop? No? Then you’re not alone. 

A small minority embraces new products and ideas, but this segment of the population is vital to the success of organizations and companies looking to appeal to a mass audience.

Known as the law of diffusion, it originates in Everett M. Rogers’ 1962 book of the same name. According to his theory, every population can be divided into five segments that respond differently to innovation.

A small percentage of the population, about 2.5 percent, is devoted to innovation. 13.5% of the population is an early adopter. 

Next, we have the risk-averse early majority and the late majority. 68 percent of the population is comprised of these two groups. 

These 16 percent are laggards, since rotary phones don’t exist anymore, so they only buy touch-tone phones.

Innovation and early adopters are willing to pay a premium or suffer inconveniences in order to own a product or promote an idea that feels right to them. There is very little to do with the real merits of that product or idea, and a lot to do with how they view themselves. 

Most people do not make intuitive decisions, however. They don’t want phones or TVs that align with their values; they want something that works and isn’t too expensive.

Rogers pointed out that mass-market success is impossible to achieve if you’re trying to convince the pragmatic majority. What is the reason for this? 

Most people won’t try something until they hear about it from a friend or colleague. In order to reach the middle of society, you need a minority of loyalists to get the word out, and they will only do that if they believe in your why.

Business isn’t the only area where this is true. Two hundred and fifty thousand people gathered in Washington, DC, in August 1963 to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. No invitations were sent, and there was no website to check, but the word had spread. 

Dr. King wasn’t the only person to suffer in the pre-civil rights era and he wasn’t the only one to be a great orator, but he never stopped advocating for what he believed in. A small group of people had adopted his message and made it their own. The message reached middle America in 1963.

Insight #6: Companies often fail when they lose sight of the “why.”

Think of a small American retail establishment in the mid-20th century. The founder of the company grew up during the Great Depression and is committed to fairness and hard work. People will take care of you if you look after them, he says. 

While the company gradually grows, its founding ideals never fade away. The company’s low prices aren’t the only reason for its success. Its holistic philosophy of giving back to employees, customers, and the community is what makes people love it.

You might not have heard this company described this way, but you’ve probably heard of it. This is Walmart. What went wrong?

Sam Walton, Walmart’s founder, was not able to preserve its original values. When he died in 1992, Walmart lost its way. The company abandoned its commitment to the communities in which it operated and redefined its mission as selling more and more at the lowest possible price.

Walmart’s new direction was not the result of external competition – in fact, Walmart was in better shape than ever. In 2002, Kmart, one of Target’s biggest rivals, filed for bankruptcy protection. Walton’s stores sold about six times as much as Target’s. Walmart racked up sales of about $400 billion a year.

Walmart was supposed to be enjoying a golden age, but that’s not how it felt inside the corporation. This is a common occurrence. Walmart’s leadership had lost its sense of purpose, just as that of other large corporations.

As of 2008, the company was facing 73 new class-action lawsuits for violating its employees’ rights and had already settled previous cases for millions of dollars. 

Formerly welcoming Walmart store openings, towns and cities fight tooth and nail to keep the company out of their communities. Labor unions and political representatives both had negative things to say about the retailer.

Walmart’s fixation with increasing its turnover stemmed from a common problem affecting American businesses: They don’t feel successful, even if they’re doing well financially.

The author witnessed something quite remarkable at the Gathering of the Titans, an annual meeting of America’s top 50 business leaders in Boston. 

Some 80 percent of attendees raised their hands when asked whether their companies met their financial targets that year. 80% of the hands went down when asked if they felt successful.

Having so much success comes with a risk. When a company succeeds after another, it becomes more confident about what it is doing and forgets why it is doing it.

Insight #7: Teams that focus on “what” often fail, while those that start with “why” are more likely to succeed

In Samuel Pierpont Langley’s mind, he was sure he would be the first man to fly. Known as a well-connected senior officer at the Smithsonian Institution, he had friends in high places, including Andrew Carnegie and Alexander Graham Bell. 

Through his contacts he had been able to land a $50,000 grant from the US War Department and assemble the brightest minds in the United States. There were reporters from the New York Times following him around, and the public was rooting for him. He had a good chance of success.

He tried and tried, but couldn’t get his contraption off the ground despite his hard work and numerous attempts. This is why.

For the first time in human history, a man took flight on December 17, 1903 – not Langley. He flew on a “flying machine” built by Wilbur and Orville Wright and their team. The Wrights’ bicycle shop provided the funding for this project, and no one involved had a college degree. How did they accomplish what Langley couldn’t?

They began with why. In James Tobin’s biography of the Wrights, he notes that Wilbur and Orville were “true scientists,” since they cared deeply and genuinely about the problem they were attempting to resolve – the problem of flight and balance. Additionally, they knew that if they succeeded, it would change the world forever.

Langley, on the other hand, was obsessed with the what. The scientist was indifferent to its application; he wanted the fame and prestige that came with a major discovery. After the Wrights beat him to it, he gave up trying to improve their flying machine.

Wilbur and Orville had another advantage: a dedicated team. They inspired others to follow their example by practicing what they preached. The motley crew of dreamers and tinkerers returned every day with five sets of parts to the field behind the Wrights’ shop. The five failed attempts led them to eat dinner. The next day, they tried again.

Langley and the Wrights were both highly motivated, had strong work ethics, and were keen scientists. Despite this, Langley had paid for talent to help him make a name for himself. Those around the Wrights were inspired and filled with belief by their determination to change the course of history.

There’s a lesson to be learned here. People will work for your money if you hire them for what they can do. Hire people who believe in what you are doing, however, and they will give you their blood, sweat, and tears.

Final Words

Any business, individual, or movement should always begin with “why” – the reason for what they are doing. 

Each decision and message its leaders convey should be anchored by this “why”. 

Consequently, they will gain long-term success and attract loyal followers. 

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