Start With Why: The bottom line
This month, I’ve decided to make you think smart with a book on entrepreneurship and, more generally, innovation. This book is Start With Why, by Simon Sinek. A bestselling piece which you probably heard about many times. But have you read it?
The book elaborates on what should be the core of a strategy. Whether you try to sell a book, a product, a service, or a dream, the WHY is the basis, the roots, the engine. Sinek explains this theory and provides some interesting and easily actionable takes.
Does that pick your curiosity? Well, that page was written for you. Just keep reading!
Simon Sinek on why you should Start With Why.
Today, I’ll Make You Think Smart with Start With Why, a book on strategy-building written by Simon Sinek.
Start With Why is one of those bestselling books many people talk about and praise continuously, whatever you read and whatever you listen. Yet, funnily enough, I didn’t get on board. Once I got the book’s big idea, I found the rest rather repetitive I must say.
Keep reading though! Start With Why didn’t rock my world (mainly a matter of style, really). But the ideas developed in the book are still worth talking about. Plus, as I always write, the point of this blog is to share some food for thought and just because I didn’t enjoy the book doesn’t mean you won’t…
As usual, here is what you get on this page:
- A brief overview of the book (that includes my SMART takes).
- A much more comprehensive commentary of what the book is about, with the author’s main topics explained in detail.
- The book’s main themes, questions, and conclusions in bullet points.
- Why the book was worth my time, why it will be valuable to you, and additional reading suggestions if you are interested in the topic!
Start With Why: brief book review (for starters).
Start With Why by Simon Sinek is a very successful book published in 2009. The author was then a business strategy consultant paid to help his clients plan and organize their projects, find a niche and all that. But he somehow realized that something was missing in his own strategy.
Whilst helping others to position their business and brand, his own activity was merely a consulting-based one and he ended up suffering from his own clients’ symptoms. At the heart of the issue, he eventually found, was a lack of purpose.
Without a purpose, projects cannot inspire. They cannot unite people and cannot create engagement. So he tried to find out what made a project worth following, and why people would feel inspired by others.
This quest for purpose eventually became a quest for what he called the ‘WHY’. And his key point became very clear: whatever you do, always start with WHY, because the WHY is the best way to inspire others and to help them go on a mission to help you make things happen.
In short, Start With Why is a book about getting things right from the start, so that your projects can develop efficiently, and over the long term.
Simon Sinek insists that what matters is not what you do but the reason why you do it and, accordingly, the message you can communicate to make your cause advance. Think Martin Luther King or Steve Jobs here, for instance. What they did or said didn’t matter that much, but the reason why they did those things resonated in a much wider way.
I’m getting into the details with a much more comprehensive book review below (keep reading!), but in short, here is what the book says:
Start With Why: The comprehensive book review.
I’ve given you the big idea behind the book already – you must start with why – but let me get into the details now.
In a nutshell, Simon Sinek explores the WHY by looking at six topics, which (in my opinion) can be regrouped into three big themes. One is the issue identified by Sinek, i.e. that people don’t ask the right questions and generally start from the wrong place. Another is the art of leading and getting people together. The third is the issue of keeping up with strategy-building in times of success.
As usual, this more comprehensive part of my reading note starts with the main themes and questions considered in the book – in bullet points. I’ll then elaborate on the themes more extensively. Let’s dig in!
The book in bullet points
Simon Sinek explores these major themes:
- Building strategies to inspire others.
- How to really make things happen.
- What matters when it comes to getting people on a mission.
He also asks a variety of questions, including:
- Ultimately, what does it take to inspire people?
- What makes a business successful?
- How to market a product or project efficiently?
- Why does refocusing on WHY actually works?
Sounds interesting, right? Now, let’s get into the details. Just keep reading!
Start With Why – Theme #1: People rarely start with why, because asking the right question is difficult.
Simon Sinek first explores the idea that we all get in the wrong direction, from the start. Asking the right questions is the best way to get the right answers, as he writes, but how often do we do that in reality?
Too many assumptions.
The answer is simple, we don’t. Most of the time, we just dig in and see where that leads us. We assume that we know how to proceed and we go for it. Yet, without knowing where you are supposed to go, how can you get the HOW right?
>> Related readings: Looking for books on Innovation?
So, Sinek warns against a bad habit: don’t assume you know, figure it out. Don’t just go along with your own biased perceptions, have a look around and think about getting the big picture before you do anything else.
The wrong method.
Because you need people to team up with you in order to make things happen, Sinek also explores the issue of behavioral psychology.
According to him, the main way people use to make other people act one way or another is to manipulate them. And that is the wrong way of doing things.
Manipulation is a big thing because it is the most obvious way available. For instance, using price reductions to beat the competition is one way to manipulate consumer behavior. Yet starting a price race is also the best way to lower the value of whatever you try to sell.
Peer pressure – making Clooney say something positive about a coffee dose to make people see it as luxury – is another type of manipulation, and so is the idea of making a product look innovative when it basically is no more than a gadget.
There is a problem with that method, though. You can’t create loyalty with price races. When your clientele is merely interested in your prices, they’ll go for the competition sooner or later. Said differently, loyalty cannot happen unless you create an environment and a culture people can relate to. And to get there, you need to start thinking differently.
Start With Why – Theme #2: The ‘Golden Circle’ alternative way of thinking.
In contrast with those methods, Simon Sinek explains that inspiring people is the best way to get them on board.
The idea is quite common in the leadership and business management community: the most motivated people are not the ones on payroll but the ones on a mission. And what that means is simple: the leader’s job is to inspire people, so they make the vision their own and get on a mission to make it happen.
The question is, how do you get them on a mission?
Start With Why answers the question this way: you, as a project leader, need to find the project’s WHY, before you can ask people to think to relate to the WHAT.
You need much more than a product to sell, and the only way for you to get people on a mission is to give them a vision to believe into. In short? Give them a WHY, and they’ll think about the HOW and the WHAT (which therefore comes last).
Simon Sinek develops a whole concept around the idea that the WHY (in capital letters throughout the book) is an absolute sine qua none to the WHAT and the HOW (also in capital letters all over the book).
He calls this a ‘Golden Circle’ logic (a WHY circle inside a HOW circle, also inside a third WHAT circle – and he insists that your cause (your why) needs to be “a simple, powerful and actionable idea”.
A different mindset.
Sinek’s approach to things is interesting because it means that a different mindset can be adopted and applied to whatever we try to do.
Instead of fighting to promote (or defend) the WHAT, we can focus on explaining the WHY, until others decide to jump in.
Sinek has a point here. While we all know what we do, how many of us can actually tell why they do it? Money doesn’t count here, the point is to find a reason, a cause, that others should care about.
He gives an example. Do you think Apple would sell their products so much if they asked people to buy stuff instead of promoting a “no status quo” culture that makes people want to be different? Probably not, and that’s probably why Dell or Microsoft have gone from computer innovators companies to being a company selling computing stuff nowadays…
In one case, the WHY comes forward. In the other, the WHAT dominates.
In such circumstances, WHY equals DNA. Having a WHY in a project means that there is a cause, it means that there is an identity and a culture, and it means that people will want to adhere to the mindset.
Sinek explores the idea in depth (again, again and again). He talks about the difference between making people’s opinions and making them feel biologically attached to an idea. He talks about our need to belong to something bigger than us, he elaborates on the importance of appealing to the right part of the brain in order to make people ‘feel’ right.
You see the big picture.
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Leadership: the real deal.
Talking about alternative thinking is also an obvious way to discuss leadership. Here, though, Sinek makes a difference between being a leader by title or appointment and being a de facto leader that people want to follow.
The difference is important! In the first case, leadership is a job and comes with a name card authority but it doesn’t imply much.
>> Related Reading: See my other reading notes on Leadership.
In the other, leadership is about creating opportunities for change to make people see you as someone they want to follow. There, the leaders are not appointed but stand out, and they have a unique impact because their ability to inspire makes people move.
This is, in fact, the second big idea of the Start With Why book. Leadership is a big deal and you have to work on making it work. “What if we could all learn to think, act and communicate like those who inspire?”, Sinek asks, before concluding that, overall, “the goal is to offer you a cause of action” to do great stuff.
Start With Why – Theme #3: Going and staying in the right direction.
Having explained (really extensively) the importance of ‘the WHY’, Simon Sinek explores the issue of the HOW. Again, however, the HOW consists in focusing on the WHY.
Start with WHY, be clear, be consistent.
Sinek insists on the idea that those leaders who want to inspire others need to focus on developing a clear, disciplined and consistent WHY.
He starts from a ‘clarity of WHY’ concept according to which “you have to know WHY you do WHAT you do”. At the end of the day, as he writes, “if you don’t know WHY you do WHAT you do, how will anyone?”.
He then goes on with a ‘discipline of HOW’ idea whereby regularity in the manner and process help creating values and standards that others will naturally abide by and implement. As long as they remain actionable, that is.
He finishes with a ‘consistency of WHAT’ idea suggesting that the WHAT is, in the end, proof of your ability to deliver on both the WHY and the HOW.
Said differently, the WHY is the basis, the HOW implements it, and the WHAT eventually shows if your product is grounded on and aligned with a strong WHY. The WHAT makes the WHY tangible.
Start with WHY to build trust.
The idea that you need a WHY to get people on board relates to a biological aspect well known by business coaches: the brain is made of different parts, some of which are either reptilian and reactive or, to the opposite, very analytical.
On this, I will soon publish some reading notes on Carmine Gallo’s book explaining why successful TED Talks are, indeed, successful. Keep an eye open!
Said differently, whilst you need people to trust you, trust isn’t something you get by demonstrating A+B. Trust is a gut feeling, and it emerges when others see converging values and mindset.
The question, therefore, is to figure out why people should trust you, and what you can do to make them feel (yes, feel) that you are the one to follow. And that makes a difference because a good WHY will get you in the right part of the brain, i.e. the guts.
In the long term, sticking with a consistent WHY is therefore essential. Failing to stick with your WHY means that your early adopters will shift to the competition. Remember the idea that Microsoft used to sell technology dreams before if ended up just selling Windows… The software, I mean.
Trust is important to keep your clients, but it also has an impact on your teams, which need to know why they wake up in the morning, and which need to feel (yes, again, feel) that they are on an important mission. In this sense, the WHY is what gets everyone going, in a same and consistent direction.
Start with WHY to build a culture.
The above also applies when it comes to building a corporate or project culture, which has an impact in terms of staff and market.
Take the staffing aspect. At the end of the day, if you are the boss chances are that you want passionate people more than technicians, right? The technicians are likely to have their salary as their main motivation… Not good in comparison to staffers on a mission, right?
The market aspect is also important, if only because Sinek’s WHY concept is a key marketing tool. As I wrote before, the WHY is an efficient way to escape the competition issue faced by most businesses. As Sinek writes it, although a business built on the WHAT factors (I sell cars) will attract a mass market interested in functionality and price, only the WHY factor (I am the luxury car incarnated) has the power to create a bond with the clients.
Stick with the WHY to stay in the right direction.
The previous point leads to this one: to last, you need to make your WHY a long-term asset. I mentioned this right before when I talked about Simon Sinek’s point on clarity and consistency, remember?
Well, the idea here is that the best way to rally is to touch guts. “Energy excites, charism inspires’, Sinek writes. This means that your WHY is your key to longevity. It is your benchmarking tool and your permanent GPS guide.
Sinek gives a great example here: while AOL used to be the trendiest thing at the early ages of the internet (I had one!), having an AOL.com email address has eventually become a sign of outdatedness. Why? Because AOL (like Yahoo) have been outranked by a giant strong of a much sexier WHY.
Similarly, Starbucks used to be a trendy place to spend time at, because it sold an idea of what having coffee should be like (a comfy break with nice cups and a couch). But the fact that it now barely sells coffee in paper cups suggests that the original WHY has been lost.
The last part of the book focuses particularly on that point, and I must say it was the most interesting bit. There, Simon Sinek talks about the challenge of success and about the difficulty of keeping things strong when you don’t have anything to prove anymore. At some point, he writes, your WHY will go “fuzzy” and a “split” will happen between your WHY and your WHAT, even if the two have been perfectly aligned until then.
To test this, Sinek mentions the school bus test, which I found both amusing and pertinent. In short: would your organization survive if you (as the founder) happened to be struck by a school bus? Without a strong WHY capable of inspiring people and maintaining a strong culture in your organization despite your absence, the answer might hardly be a yes… If you want to find out more, get your copy of the book.
Start With Why: The main conclusions
Simon Sinek comes to the following conclusions.
- The WHY is at the basis of every successful company because it gives them a cause to be and creates the basis for a vision that others will turn into a mission.
- The WHY should, therefore, come forth in priority, before the HOW and the WHAT. Plus, it gives your business an edge compared to those who only focus on the WHAT and thus have to fight against a greater competition created by attraction for prices and basic functionalities.
- Focusing on the WHY makes a difference between leaders who run companies and leaders who inspire those who run companies.
Start With Why: Food for thought.
You might not remember it, but I wrote this paragraph, earlier in my commentary:
In a nutshell, Simon Sinek explores the WHY by looking at six topics, which in my opinion can be regrouped into three big themes. One is the issue identified by Sinek, i.e. that people don’t ask the right questions and generally start from the wrong place. Another is the art of leading and getting people together. The third is the issue of keeping up with strategy-building in times of success.
It has taken me a little bit of work to simplify the book’s message this way, though.
Those of you who read my book suggestions know that I write what I think, and in this case, I must confess that reading the book entirely has been a demanding task for me.
You’ll say I am picky and you’ll be right. But considering the importance of a pyramid’s basis in the famous Maslow model (the basis of the pyramid is essential and nothing can be built if it is not rock-solid), I for instance had troubles with the book’s insistence on visually placing the WHAT at the basis of the conceptual pyramid while the WHY sits on top.
I got the reason why Simon Sinek has done things this way. A pyramid looks like a speaker if you flip it to the side hence putting WHY at the top means you can promote it louder. Yet, the system goes against the standard approach which is used everywhere else and that has failed to convince me.
In retrospect, this book clearly is a reference when it comes to books on creating revolutionary products and services. But my overall opinion on Start With Why is that while the message is sound and makes sense (more on this below), my feeling is that the book remains very repetitive and, I would say, isn’t such an easy read. Sorry Mr Sinek…
On the positive side, here is why you should read Start With Why.
There are some good takes, nonetheless. I have written above the various points which, in my opinion, are worth remembering and I invite you to get the book and see for yourself if the why concept has caught your attention.
To wrap things up, though, I would give you the following quote from the book:
“… In business, like a bad date, many companies work so hard to prove their value without saying why they exist in the first place. You’ll have to do more than show your resumé before someone finds you appealing.”
Simon Sinek calls this the mechanism “the biology of decision-making”, and a real consequence of the process is that, like in a date, you indeed need to charm, work on being authentic and seducing. In the best sense of the term. And that sounds fair.
All in all, I’d therefore say that Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why is interesting for those seeking to create a project, get people on board, build a team or improve their project culture.
My key takeaways?
I keep in mind that your WHY will give you a vision, i.e. a classic concept in business strategy management – you need a mission so others can go on a personal mission to make that vision a reality. And that works at every level, whether you are a large group’s CEO or a simple entrepreneur determined to build something great.
I also keep in mind the fact that focusing on the WHY will help you pick why-oriented people willing to be on a mission, as compared to how-oriented people who will merely do what you ask until someone pays them more than you do. Said differently, your ability to focus on WHY will make you a better leader, especially if you want to inspire instead of merely running a company…
I keep in mind that the WHY acts as a benchmark that you can use to test and measure your business’ progress and developments as time passes.
And I finally keep in mind the idea that your WHY overall acts as a megaphone. Businesses without a WHY do things, but those with a cause have a greater reach and can change the status quo. I can clearly relate to this idea.
If those ideas talk to you, catch your interest, or pick your curiosity, then this book could be interesting to you. Make sure to have a look at my other notes on entrepreneurship and business development, though!
Your turn now, get the book!
That’s it for now, but don’t stop here! My reading notes are meant to give you a very comprehensive overview of the books I read and some food for thought for the month. That’s why I’ll Make You Think SMART is the Kick-Ass Book Reviews blog after all!
Having said that, the next step for you is to keep digging! Remember, books are a cheap way to learn new things and to benefit from the experience of others at no cost. Not to mention the stories you’ll be able to tell after a good read!
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