How to Find the 'Why' of Your Company

How to Find the 'Why' of Your Company

by Bruce Gil


Published on 05.24.2019

“Truly transformational teams combine their ambitions to their passion and to their purpose,” said John Doerr in his 2018 Ted Talk. He argued that innovative companies must develop a clear and compelling sense of WHY they do what they do.

Identifying and committing to a "why" makes evident what work a company must prioritize as most important. It gives them the perspective to see what they really want to accomplish. It reveals a direction, a North Star to move towards. But not only that, it inspires people.

A company’s why serves as a launch pad for their OKRs. Doerr describes OKRs as empty vessels made up of a team’s whats and hows. However, he added, “What really matters is the why that we pour into those vessels.”

For example, all of Google's products and services like Search, Gmail, Earth, Android, etc, correspond with their mission statement which, according to Google Co-founder Larry Page, is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Another example is Allbirds, the maker of no-frills and ultra-comfortable shoes. Their why is a commitment to making better things in a better way. They accomplish this by making their shoes with high-quality natural materials while at the same time reducing their carbon footprint.

And Asana’s project-management software was designed to fulfill their company’s why, which is to help all teams work effortlessly.

All these examples demonstrate how a well-defined why can connect team OKRs to a company’s core purpose. Notice how none of those whys are "whats." They are not products, services, or sales goals. It can be helpful to think of a why as a vision statement that describes how a company sees itself and the work it does.

Whys are inspirational, but they’re not vague. A good why must feel specific to a company. At the end of the day, it should allow every employee to clearly understand how the work they do day-to-day is contributing to fulfilling their company’s purpose.

The benefits of determining your company’s why are undeniable. But how do you find it? The first step is to make time for honest reflection. Write down your values. Think about your past successes and failures and look for patterns. If you need some help, here are two strategies to give a try.

Strategy 1: 6 Quick steps to your purpose

Director of Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health Vic Strecher suggested these six steps to find your company’s authentic purpose.

  • Step 1: Consider the top three-to-five core values of the company. What are the things the company cares about the most? What’s non-negotiable?
  • Step 2: Consider other companies you admire and would want to emulate (not imitate).
  • Step 3: This is a tough one. Assume your company went out of business. In retrospect, what would you want it to be known for? What legacy would you’d like the company to leave?
  • Step 4: Now that you’ve primed the pump, it’s time to ask, “What are the goals of your company that matter most?” These goals naturally emerge from what you value the most.
  • Step 5: Assemble these valued goals into an overall company purpose. This is where you stop and ask yourself, “Does this purpose transcend revenue?” Make sure the suit fits - your purpose can be aspirational but it must be authentic.
  • Step 6: Wear the suit. Make sure everyone in the organization understands the purpose. If the purpose doesn’t fit, change it until it does.

That last step is vital because it recognizes that whys can and do change. Some times whys stay constant as a company’s OKRs continue to change over the years. But it's perfectly fine for a why to evolve along with a company's goals and values.

Strategy 2: The benefit game

Another way to find your why is to play the benefit game. First, you write down what your company does and ask yourself what’s the benefit of that. You write down your answer and then ask what’s the benefit of that. You continue this pattern as many times as you can.

Here’s an example of how the benefit game would play out with an electric car dealership.

Proposed purpose: We sell electric vehicles.

What’s the benefit of that? We help people drive in an environmentally-friendly way.

What’s the benefit of that? It reduces pollution caused by driving.

What’s the benefit of that? It reduces human-contribution to climate change.

What’s the benefit of that? It reduces harm to life on Earth.

Purpose: Provide a life-sustaining method of travel.

There are dozens of ways to identify your company’s why, but the most important thing is to get started. Discovering your company’s purpose will transform the day to day by bringing meaning into the workplace.

A compelling why paired with OKRs helps companies change the world. Learn more about OKRs by checking out FAQs, Stories, and Resources here on WhatMatters.com.

Bruce Gil (@brucgl) is a Las Vegas-based writer and journalist who writes about  leadership, team management, and international entrepreneurship. 


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