Simon (Sinek) Says “Start with Why”

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to read more from my huge pile of non fiction books before it buries me. And with 2016 as my year of positive change, I thought Start with Why by Simon Sinek would be an appropriate place to start – and it was! Not only did it help me formulate my own why better, I also had the opportunity to immediately put the theory to use on a pro-bono case for a local ecology NGO in the Netherlands.


Leading from the inside out

golden circleThe core idea of the book is the Golden Circle, a simple diagram with three layers of WHY, HOW and WHAT. And as the title of the book suggests, we should start from the inside out, start with WHY.

So often, we focus primarily on WHAT it is we offer the world. Our products or services are indeed our most immediate connection with consumers and customers, and as tangible benefits and features are easy to list, this is usually what we focus on in our marketing efforts. To differentiate from competition, we focus on the elements of WHAT that are different. If that’s not enough to be different, we might also add HOW something is made into the equation. It’s easy to forget all about the WHY,  about the reason why a company or product was created in the first place.


People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it

Most companies and products start are started by a person who is frustrated because something is missing or wrong. That underlying reason is often the real WHY. In start-ups, the team is small enough that as they try to figure out the HOW and the WHAT, everyone has a pretty clear sense of the WHY. The beliefs of the founder(s) are clear to the whole team. Start-With-Why-SplitYet as organizations get bigger, the HOW and the WHAT can become objectives in themselves, overtaking the often less measurable WHY at the heart of the company. Simon Sinek calls this the split, the point where the HOW and WHAT lose track of the WHY. The split can be repaired by strong leadership rekindling the WHY and communicating it clearly, inside and out.


The golden circle as a megaphone for leaders

Start-With-Why-ConeFrom the top, the Golden Circle looks flat, yet on its side, it becomes a megaphone for leadership. Great leaders have clarity of WHY, they inspire a team of executives who know HOW to create the WHAT which consistently affirms the WHY in the marketplace.


The book highlights many examples of companies that do and don’t start from WHY, with business results to match. The book is an easy inspiring read, but if you’re short of time, there’s an excellent TED talk that will take you through the basics and some examples in just 18 minutes.


From theory to practice for a local NGO

It was very inspiring and useful to put theory into practice for a local NGO earlier this week. At the start of the workshop, the WHY, HOW and WHAT were buried in a strategic document and the head of the founder. Using the questions below, they were relatively easy to distill in an interactive workshop with the founder and the board.


  • Why was this organization started?
  • What defines our ideal world, the world we want to create?
  • How is the current world different?
  • What’s the transition that needs to occur to create the world we want?


  • Who are the people who need to be activated to accelerate the transition to the world we want to create?
    • What are they doing already?
    • What’s in it for them to join the transition?
    • Why aren’t they doing more already?
  • What other organizations share our vision of the world we want? How are they driving change?
  • How are we currently driving this transition?
    • What makes us unique?
    • Which people and organizations are we already activating?
    • Which ones are we not yet reaching successfully?
  • How can we inspire more people and organizations to collaborate to drive the desired transition?


  • What are the projects we offer currently?
    • What do they bring to the organization in terms of impact towards the world we want, money, otherwise?
    • What are the investments required to deliver these projects in terms of hours, budget, energy and frustration?
    • Which of them support the WHY? Which ones do not?
  • What other projects can we add to our portfolio that accelerate our WHY?


With use of the golden circle and these questions, what seemed all fuzzy at the start of the workshop, already became more clear after just a few hours. What proved very challenging in this case was defining the organizational part of the HOW. So we came back to it with some additional questions.

  • What organizational size and structure do we need to deliver the WHAT?
  • How can we staff and finance our key projects?
  • What’s needed to collaborate with potential partners that share our WHY?


Just one workshop laid the foundation to find more clarity in the WHY and consistency in the WHAT, but it will take more effort to find the discipline for the organizational part of the HOW.  The board and the NGO’s founder will now take that forward.


Written by Marjolein Baghuis @mbaghuis for Change in Context


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