Many of you probably know the famous “Golden Circle”, sometimes also known as the “WHY – HOW – WHAT” principle, coined by Simon Sinek. Hardly a day goes by where you don’t stumble over it somehow in everyday professional life or you see the results of various Golden Circle workshops in social media.
The hype started roughly 3-4 years ago, when the TEDx Talk by Simon Sinek, which was already held in 2009 (indeed looks a bit dusty), became increasingly viral:
The concept is great, the idea a wonderful piece of creative work. It makes a lot of sense to think about the WHY of a company. It makes just as much sense to think about your own personal WHY. What is it that makes me get up every morning and engage in my work with enthusiasm (if you are lucky enough to have found fulfilment in your work)?
The cascade of WHY – HOW – WHAT in Sinek’s concept is brought into a logical connection with the principles of the biology of human decision making and shows how these messages find different anchor points in our brain, with different goals: the WHY in the limbic system (feelings) and the WHAT in the neocortex (multisensors and motor skills).
As stated earlier, the idea of “Start with WHY” has been increasingly implemented in working life for a few years now. But I keep noticing – especially lately – 2 things which I find problematic and to which I wish we engage in improvement and change.
- Golden Circles with questionable output (replace “questionable” with “not according to the concept”, “superficial”, “past the actual goal”, “bad” where you see fit).
- The application of the cascade “WHY – HOW – WHAT” in a completely different context, as an obscure storytelling format for the presentation of project ideas (“why do we want to engage in project idea xy”, “how do we want to implement it”, “what is it exactly what do we want to do”).
But why is that problematic from my point of view?
1) The “well meant” Golden Circle (roughly in the original intent)
These are Golden Circles with WHY statements that simply do not meet the original purpose of the concept. In these diluted forms, the WHY statement usually does not describe the connecting and emotional core of the company or team (“nested WHY”), but rather
- either an aspiration for the future (and this is explicitly not the idea of WHY according to Sinek – “WHY is about who we are – not who we want to become in the future”),
- or (and this is very common) it doesn’t describe a WHY at all, but rather you find content in such WHY statements that rather describes a WHAT,
- or the formulation aims above all to present a ‘raison d’être’ that has nothing to do with the emotional core that actually aims at the principle of WHY.
In such cases, the WHY statement is not geared to what we intend to trigger in other people (especially our customers, our users, etc.), where we want to help them, what we want to enable them to do, etc., but it is primarily directed internally (e.g. “we do XY to positively drive our business…”, “we exist because only we can ensure that process step XY has a high quality”, etc.).
You can often sport WHY statements of questionable quality and expressiveness by the fact that they lack the usual and necessary structure (“to [mission statement]…”). This leads to the flaw that the focus of the WHY statement is not directed to the outside (on our customers, on our users), but to the inside (e.g. “we want to build products and services to make an impact on our business”).
To prevent this from happening, it is important to consider the following:
- Get enough important members with as heterogeneous a functional background as possible and many with a long membership in the organization (at least 10, according to Sinek’s specification up to 30).
- Before formulating even a single WHY statement, be sure to explain the conceptual framework. This can indeed be the TED Talk video at the start. And then you should explain the essential thoughts behind each level (WHY, HOW, WHAT) yourself, e.g. on a flip chart. There is first class (and free) material from Simon Sinek.
- The source of all good WHY statements (and of course the related HOW statements and the WHATs) are stories. Stories of members of the organization who tell the special moments in the history of the company and above all the moments that these people found particularly formative. Stories that express the common purpose. Sinek formulates it aptly: “Put into words what an organization’s culture is about when working at its natural best.”
- The groups into which the members of a Golden Circle workshop are divided need close monitoring and guidance. There is a constant risk that individual participants drift away and results à la “why must we exist?” sneak in. Therefore, such workshops should only be conducted with sufficient trainer/coach personnel!
- Good and target-oriented moderation and above all documentation of the intermediate results from the individual group work. This is of essential importance, as all the contents and results of the group work as mentioned above can be used for the definition of the WHY, but also for the HOW. A WHY is not formulated after a little bit of individual brainstorming into the blue sky, but is carefully and consciously generated from the gathered stories of the members of the organization.
2) The “weirdly twisted” Golden Circle (not in the original intent)
To convert the Golden Circle into a project advocacy storytelling format is problematic for me because people who have not yet really dealt with the subject “Golden Circle” often get a completely wrong impression. If they consecutively encounter the concept elsewhere – intended in the original sense (or almost in this sense) – there is a high risk that they think “sure, I already know this”. But in fact they couldn’t be any more distant from the original idea of the Golden Circle. Something like that simply further promotes the dilution and de-focusing of the original meaning.
Here as well you will often find content in the “WHY” that is more the type of a WHAT (“we want to do XY better”, etc.). In such cases “HOW” in today’s world then oftentimes carries common phrases like “in an agile mode” or “by setting up a program”, etc.
Basically it is ok to use certain structures with recognition value for storytelling to promote new ideas or projects. Against this outlined background, however, I find the use of Simon Sinek’s “WHY – HOW – WHAT” not suitable. The concept is simply not meant that way. The more we are profaning the Golden Circle into this direction, the further we move away from finding a starting point for meaning that is deeply anchored in our emotional motivations. If you would like to give a crisp justification for a new project, why not simply formulate a reasonable “mission statement”?
Let us preserve the true core of the Golden Circle!
My plea: if you run into the Golden Circle concept, don’t immediately think “sure, I know, I understand”, only because you might have seen the TED Talk by Simon Sinek. Don’t consider offering or running Golden Circle and WHY Discovery workshops, if you have not at least gone through the deeper intellectual and procedural deepening in the form of the available and really entertaining and helpful books.
Too many such WHY Discovery workshops are conducted, the output of which is usually not very useful and meaningful, and the participants do not take any of the emotionally connecting power of the concept with them. The concept of the Golden Circle is simply too valuable and powerful to be watered down like this. A well and profoundly defined Golden Circle can be a very useful and, above all, authentic starting point for a range of cultural and organizational change programs.
If you are interested, I strongly recommend to use the concept for your own organization or even for yourself (personal WHY), to take a look at the the really very good books by Simon Sinek and partners, or to use the materials you find here: simonsinek.com/find-your-why
START WITH WHY: Presentation of the exact concept and all backgrounds, with many good examples of companies that have gathered a clear understanding of their WHY and its benefits.
FIND YOUR WHY: Step-by-step guide for WHY Discovery Workshop implementation. For companies/groups as well as for the personal WHY. A must for anyone who wants to conduct such workshops.
This way you’ll be perfectly set up for the WHY Discovery for your own company or for yourself. Have fun with it!