People Don't Buy What You Do, They Buy Why You Do It

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"We are purpose maximisers not just profit maximisers" Dan Pink

 So I read today that BP has chosen to ignore almost a thousand ideas for saving the gulf from the members of Innocentive – the global network of scientists, engineers and doctors (61% of whom hold PhDs or Masters degrees) that has helped some of the largest (and in this context forward-thinking) organisations in the world transform their R & D practices and culture (including P & G). The decision, as Don Tapscott says, is mystifying when BP has a problem it clearly doesn’t know how to solve, and InnoCentive brings together hundreds of thousands of bright people who love to solve problems.

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Yet it is also somehow so familiar, and smacks of the kind of closed thinking that makes no sense in the post-industrial era, and that detaches you from the most energising and meaningful of human motivations. As Leroy Stick (the man behind @BPGlobalPR ) puts it: "You know the best way to get the public to respect your brand? Have a respectable brand".

In his (inspiring) TEDx talk Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why, makes a simple but powerful point. Every organisation in the world knows what they do. Many know how they do it (whether they call it a USP, a proprietary proposition, or a differentiated value proposition). But surprisingly few really know why they do what they do. And the why is not about making a profit (because that’s always a result) but rather their purpose, their belief, the thing that makes their employees get out of bed in the morning or their customers care. It’s typical, says Simon, for organisations to start with the clearest thing (the what) and work inwards towards the fuzziest thing (the why), but the most inspiring businesses and leaders take the complete opposite approach. This explains the fact that what many companies have to say is usually pretty uninspiring.

Yet the goal should not just be to sell to people who need what you have but to those who believe what you believe. The goal should not just be to hire people who can do the job, but to hire the people who believe what you believe.

This, I believe, is what separates the new networked thinking from industrial era doctrine. Peter Drucker said "In the knowledge economy all staff are volunteers, but our managers are trained to manage conscripts". Dan Pink pointed out that ‘management’ is an invented technology from the 1850s, and that  "management leads to compliance, but only self-direction leads to engagement". When the profit motive gets unmoored from the purpose motive, bad things happen, and mediocre becomes the norm. The what and the how is what happens when you think of things in technological terms. The why is what happens when you think of things in human terms. And, to paraphrase Deborah Schultz, as I do in just about every talk I’ve ever given, it’s not about the technology, it’s about the people.

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