In the early days of the Dot Com boom, Sequoia Capital founder Don Valentine gave the world a gift of three little words that have yet to stop giving.
So accepted has its logic become that millennial managers might be forgiven for wondering what else previous generations might ever have conceived of as their prime directive.
Pre-Valentine thinking endures in many corners, alas. It’s not hard to understand why. The factors that go into making a product or service are relatively simple compared with the often unimaginable complexities of understanding a market. It’s far easier and more comfortable to tweak an offering — or worse, attempt to force it down customers’ throats as is — than to ask with whether one’s even aiming in the right direction.
As life coach and occasional business guru
Getting this backwards was a recipe for disaster: witness BlackBerry, Blockbuster, Kodak and others who could not believe the world no longer cared for their babies.
But loving thy customer is easier said than done. Many consumer businesses still don’t know exactly who is buying their product, let alone why, or what else might be necessary to keep them.
Almost on cue, another powerful concept emerged from Silicon Valley. The essence of Steve Blank’s and Eric Ries’s Lean business development was less its focus on reducing waste (hence its name) than its insight that the basic unit of progress of business was not profit, but learning. No matter how ingenious its product team, a company can’t figure out what the market wants in a boardroom — that way lies New Coke, NeXT computers, and Newton. Instead they need to think of each new product release as an experiment, a kind of living Q&A with customers whose formal survey and focus group input is never entirely reliable. Thus the Lean mantra: Build, Measure, Learn.
Okay, you say. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t already know this. Why retread ancient history?
For all the lessons we’ve managed to extract from these elegant formulae, it seems we’re far from done.
At root, all Valentine told us was that business is a chicken and egg process. You don’t achieve product-market fit by changing only one or the other. Sometimes the main process may be changing product features until the market gets big enough, the way iPhone evolved from an Apple fanboy prize that couldn’t handle email to a BlackBerry-dethroning handset. It also means pivoting to a different market that values what you’ve got, as struggling check-in app Burbn discovered when its photo filter add-on turned out to be its main feature — and was reborn as Instagram.
In turn, all Lean asked us to do was to approach product development with the rigor of the Scientific Method, which has worked out pretty well across much of the modern world.
The power of these approaches has become so proven and beyond question that mentioning your love of Lean is more likely to draw amusement than admiration in your Silicon-Wherever job interview.
Which is why it remains fascinating that we have yet to apply them as systematically to another business condundrum: the question of purpose, or at it has become styled since Simon Sinek gave a wildly-popular 2009 TED talk on the subject, their “WHY”.
Few managers question the business value of purpose. Among other things it has proven itself in various contexts to power three key drivers of productivity: fit, that is, attracting individuals who share an organization’s corporate values; alignment, or agreement on business priorities; and engagement, the discretionary investment of effort.
Far less clear is where purpose comes from, or how to institute it. Recent studies have found employers and employees alike falling out of love with its tools — notably a 2017 Bain & Company survey that found usage of mission statements tumbling by half since the financial crisis. According to Google, interest in missions, visions and values seems to have peaked over a decade ago, and continues to tumble.
Millennials have told
Much of this disillusionment may be attributed to the way the problem has been approached. The best-selling workbook on the subject — Find Your WHY (2017) by Simon Sinek, David Mead and Peter Docker — says we can figure out what we’re supposed to be doing as professionals, teams and companies simply by locking ourselves up in workshops and doing some hard thinking. Once done, we shall have articulated a WHY that will stick with us forever, so long as we stay focused. The rest of purpose’s magic will take care of itself.
A better approach may lie in taking our cue from Messrs Valentine, Blank and Ries.
A consistent theme emerging from workshops
Set aside the question of where this emotional need comes from (our origins as a species, but that’s for another day). The fact is we all want to have it to some degree. When we inquire into our WHY, what we’re really trying to figure out is where we can have the most of it.
Our client work has also suggested it’s no great leap to reframe this question as one of “self-impact fit” for individuals— or, at the corporate level, “company-impact fit”. As the old Zen story goes, fish are not tremendously good at climbing trees, nor monkeys at swimming. If they trade places, everyone’s better off.
Is it any less crazy to suppose we might find this fit at an offsite than it is to suppose we might come up with product-market fit in front of a whiteboard?
No. Just as we’ve abandoned the latter for Minimum Viable Products (or, as my colleague Peter LePiane puts it, learning in the smallest viable increments) so is it time to put away the notion that our WHY is a fixed element of our personalities — as Sinek and co. claim, “fully formed by our late teens” — that can be discovered without deliberate action and experimentation.
Mission statements should be thought of not as descriptions of known reality, so much as hypotheses we put out there to test.
Iteration cannot be left until the next “strategic refresh” or arrival of a new CEO. It should be a matter of due course.
Think back to the hapless executives Bain polled. If a mission statement is being used — if it isn’t seen to have any practical value — it’s not simply because mission statements are ridiculous (though they often are, owing in part to poor formulation and distribution — but that’s for another day). It’s because they’re the wrong mission statement. They don’t properly describe “company-impact fit”. Just as we have done with our products and markets, we need to make sure we are measuring where they get traction and where they don’t — and iterating accordingly.
This concept is a powerful one. We shall elaborate in more detail in a future blog. But now you have the basic idea. Let us know what you think of this Minimum Viable Post. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.