Innovation starts with a “Why”

One of the most watched videos in TED Talk history has spotty audio, poor lighting, and a glitchy focus.  However, chances are you have either seen it or at least heard of it.  This is how powerful Simon Sinek’s innovative framework for leadership is:

The talk frames Sinek’s larger focus of encouraging employers and entrepreneurs to “start with the why.” Leaders should focus on why you and your organization does something, and design your systems in accordance with the why.  This is the opposite of most business plans which focus heavily on the what or the how.  For example, here are some organization’s mission statements that embody the more traditional way of thinking:

  • “Our vision is to be earth’s most customer-centric company [how]; to build a place [what] where people can come to find and discover [how] anything they might want to buy online” –
  • Exxon Mobil Corporation is committed to being the world’s premier petroleum and petrochemical company [what]. To that end, we must continuously achieve superior financial and operating results while simultaneously adhering to high ethical standards. [how]
  • The U.S. Department of Education’s mission is to promote student achievement [what] and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access [how].

Compare these rather uninspiring mission statements with the following from Patagonia:

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“Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. [Why]

Immediately, this mission statement clearly inspires anyone concerned about the “environmental crisis” (ok, I’ll admit the language is a bit vague) to shop and support Patagonia.  This is why this brand is able to capture a higher price point than many of its competitors.  Outdoor enthusiasts are frequently environmentally conscious and a brand that states that repairing environmental damage is a core belief of their organization will have an easy time to capture their market.

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The same could be said of Apple, Volkswagen, Beats Headphones etc. These brands capture a higher market value than their competitors (despite their competition having similar technology, distribution, and marketing funds).  They can do this because they are selling a lifestyle, and lifestyle is something everyone is willing to invest in. Every Apple commercial talks about being an artist, or going against the fray. As is turns out, that message is strong enough to capture over 30% of the smart phone market despite being significantly higher priced than most competitive phones.  Volkswagen’s “young rebel” lifestyle and Beats’ music aficionado style help drive these products to similar success in their market.

What does this have to do with Innovation?

Most innovators are familiar with the term “a solution looking for a problem.” This criticism is often given to cutting edge technology where the use case is not fully developed or appreciated.  A current example of a solution looking for a problem is the iWatch.  If you ask someone who owns an iPhone why they bought it, they will likely use non-defined almost emotional words like “simple,” “premium,” or “it just works.” Conversely, if you ask people to describe why they bought an iWatch their explanation is usually far more concrete, “it displays my upcoming events on the go” or “it measures my heartbeat.”   The iWatch sells decently, bolstered by Apple’s brand, but it is clear (to me at least) that the iWatch will never capture the market fandom in the way the iPhone did.

Which brings us to the point: Design Thinking must start with the why.  Why are customers going to use your product? Why is your start-up pursuing this idea? Why are you the person to be providing this service? If you understand the why, the how and the what become far clearer.

To demonstrate, here is an example of Microsoft’s attempts to eat away at Apple’s languishing professional computer line:

I’ll admit, I was surprised that this came from Microsoft too, but the strategy is clear: If Microsoft can develop a better high-end device for creatives, then professional Apple users may start making the switch to Windows.  This does not seem like a big deal on the face because Apple makes most of its profits from iPhones and iTunes. However, if the public starts viewing Microsoft customers as more creative and innovative than Apple, then Apple’s “why” is gone. Regardless of any innovative design features such as a thumbprint reader or bezel edges, people buy iPhones because of the lifestyle it promises.

Don’t believe me? Look at Samsung.  The poor overworked engineers in this company have no idea why their great innovations always come out first before Apple, and yet the iPhone continues to wreck the Samsung line.   To summarize:

Focus on finding a why first, this is the true innovation.  After that, the what and the how will come together.

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