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Measure with a Purpose (for Forbes)

Submitted by on April 15, 2011 – 10:52 pm6 Comments
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Simon Sinek‘s book “Start with Why” revolves around a single, elegant premise – successful leaders and businesses follow a common course — and it is the exact opposite of the way all other leaders and businesses proceed — This is the Golden Circle… a series of three concentric circles.  In the outermost ring is “what” you do” followed next by “how” you do it and in the center, “why” you do it.

Sinek makes a convincing case  that successful leaders or businesses move from the inside out – they begin with a powerful sense of “why” – their purpose, mission and reason to exist.   Only then do they move to “how (how I achieve my purpose) -and finally “What” they do.  Starting With Why is exemplified by leaders such as Martin Luther King or Gandhi.  In Business, Apple is a paragon.   The rest of the horde of followers start with what they do:  I make laptops… or I am a consultant when they should be starting with why.  The trouble is, most people and companies lack a clear sense of purpose in the first place.  In its absence they seek a proxy.

There are many ways that companies find a substitute for having a purpose.  Research and measurement is often one of them.  As the Golden Circle suggests, they are approaching their business from the wrong direction.

As science begins its march into every discipline – including marketing, under cover of the overhyped (and less understood) buzzwords of “listening”  – I see companies falling into the trap of driving their business from research (customer insight) while still lacking any sense of purpose.   We now have the capacity to measure and predict a whole series of outcomes that were once the domain of speculation.   What will move people to buy a product?  What conversations are they engaged in?   What matters to them most?  how exactly did people respond to a given message and so on.   Making sense of data – as valuable as that can be – will never bring you closer to finding a purpose that centers your actions, guides your people or shapes your culture.

Don’t get me wrong – measurement is valuable and a needed skill in today’s organization – but it is no surrogate for understanding what you stand for.   Measurement can reveal the “what” – what types of products or services are needed, what customers think of you, what customers say to one another and so on.   Allied with purpose, measurement can open a whole new field of play.  Yet it can never yield the Big Why.  And without a why – an organization cannot achieve greatness.

note – after having just spent an inspiring week working with @donbart – aka Metrics Man thinking about how we keep our measurement aligned with clear objectives, I should be clear: this post is not intended to diminish measurement – but to elevate the need for purpose in today’s organizations.

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  • Very true. With an executive just this week I was using the metaphor of a car dashboard. If your goal is to drive across the country, you want to focus on the metric of miles per gallon. If your goal is to get to the emergency room, you want to focus on the metric of miles per hour. If we implement metrics without a clear goal and strategy, we could actually end up hurting our organizations' performance.

  • Larry Irons says:

    “Why” is always the most difficult question regardless of context or discipline or profession. From my reading of his thoughts and speaking with Don a few times I suggest he aligns with the idea that measurement requires purposive intent and contextual awareness. I especially appreciated this post from his blog from a couple of years back,


  • Don Bartholomew says:

    Thanks for the shout-out, Josh. Thought provoking post based on a very thought provoking concept. I'll be adding Sinek's book to my reading list. Measurement by orientation is backward-looking. Measurement can assess performance against objectives (what) but doesn't help you choose the most powerful and relevant objectives. Measurement can provide valuable diagnostic information to assess which strategies (how) are working and and which are not, but doesn't create brilliant strategy. 'Why' is about more than what you should measure. It seems to me the power of 'why' is in the context it provides as a guidepost for decision-making. In listening strategies 'why' helps you decide what you should be listening for, where you should be listening and who you should be listening to. -Don B @Donbart

  • Don Bartholomew says:

    Thanks, Larry. Context is incredibly important in measurement, particularly when people speak about Influence, this year's hot measurement topic in social media. -Don B

  • joshuamross says:

    Larry, Thanks for calling out this post – it is one of my favorites from Don and I just now re-read it.

  • steroids says:

    I think we can all put too much confidence in measurements.

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