Stop searching for an abstract “WHY”. Find your “Company-Impact Fit”.

Source: Lynda Mullaly Hunt

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.

“Product-market fit” has come to be seen as the Holy Grail of 21st century business.

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.

The concept is simple. As tempting as it is to simply tweak your offering— or worse, attempt to force it down customers’ throats, Mad Men-style— it’s just as important to ask whether one’s even aiming in the right direction.

As occasional business guru Tony Robbins has put it, the ideal is to “fall in love with your customer, not your product.”

Getting this backwards is an all-too-common recipe for disaster: witness BlackBerry, Blockbuster, Kodak and others who failed to realize the world no longer adored their babies.

Still, loving thy customer turned out to be easier said than done. Years after Valentine’s proclamation, many businesses still didn’t know exactly who was buying their product, let alone why.

Almost on cue emerged another powerful Silicon Valley notion. The essence of Eric Ries’s Lean development is less its focus on reducing waste (whence its name) than its conviction the basic unit of progress of business is not profit, but learning. No matter how ingenious its product team, no company can figure out what its market wants in a boardroom — that way lies New Coke, NeXT computers, and Newton.

Rather they need to think of each new release as an experiment, a kind of living Q&A with customers whose formal survey/focus group responses input have proven notoriously unreliable. 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?

Because this:

For all the lessons we’ve managed to extract from these elegant formulae, it seems we’re far from done.

The power of these approaches has become so accepted that getting too excited about either in your Silicon-Wherever job interview is likely to draw more amusement than admiration.

Which is why it remains so fascinating that we have yet to apply them to another modern business condundrum: the question, as it has become styled since Simon Sinek’s wildly-popular 2009 TED talk on the subject, of “WHY”.

Few managers question the value of purpose. It powers three key drivers of the productivity they hunger for:

  • 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 most popular embodiments— a 2017 Bain & Company survey found mission statement usage tumbled by half since its peak just before the financial crisis.

Millennials have told PwC, McKinsey and others that they value corporate purpose — just not the way their bosses do it.

Much of this disillusionment appears to stem from wanting approaches. 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 just by locking ourselves up in workshops and thinking. Once done, we’re promised a WHY that will stick with us forever — and the rest should take care of itself.

The problem is, it doesn’t.

While it’s tempting to throw out the purpose baby with the workshop bathwater, we might first attempt a more promising approach that takes its cues from Messrs Valentine and Ries.

A consistent theme that has emerged from Framework’s client work is that purpose is, at root, a feeling of impact.

Set aside the question of where the need comes from (our origins as a species, but that’s for another day). We all want to have impact to some degree. When we inquire into our WHY, what we’re really trying to figure out is where we can have the most .

We’ve found 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 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 with sticky notes than come up with product-market fit with a whiteboard?

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.

What about viewing mission statements not as all-in convictions, for example, so much as testable hypotheses?

And rather than leaving iteration until the next new CEO or “strategic refresh”, expecting to learn and refine it in normal course? (Though not so often as Yahoo!, whose 23 missions in 21 years were crazy.)

Think back to the executives Bain polled. If a mission is being used — if it isn’t seen to have any practical value — it’s not simply because missions are ridiculous (they often are, 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’ll elaborate in a future blog. For now, let us know what you think of this Minimum Viable Post. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

Stephen Butler is a management consultant and partner at Framework and Rimrock.

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