The accepted belief in strategy is that any organization should start with a clear mission, vision, goals, ‘why’, set of values, or any other expression of a bigger purpose and that everything else should be derived from that. That sounds nice and intuitive. It sounds nice because it make us feel like welldoers who serve a purpose with our organizations. And it sounds intuitive because everything we do needs to start with a reason, right?
At other places I have argued why starting your strategy in this way is not always the best way. In an earlier post on Sinek’s ‘Start with Why’ I have questioned whether all strategy should start with why and in another post I argued that mission and vision statements are overrated. And both in my definition of strategy as a unique way of sustainable value creation and in posts on how to create focus and alignment in your strategy I argued that starting with the value that you offer is generally a better idea.
But why is this? Let me start with a bit of history to explain why the idea that everything should start with a bigger goal is so appealing. This idea reflects what is called ‘teleological’ thinking. As Wikipedia tells us “Teleology or finality is a reason or explanation for something in function of its end, purpose or goal. It is derived from two Greek words: telos (end, goal, purpose) and logos (reason, explanation).” It means we do and explain things by relating it to some future end, goal or purpose.
This idea goes back to the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. It contends that we always start with a goal before we do something. So, if we walk somewhere, we do this because we have a particular goal in mind and if we think about something we also do so because of certain goal.
Teleological thinking is all over the place. We are told to think first before we act and set clear goals and milestones before we embark in a project. And in strategy we hear it all the time. The whole idea of traditional strategy is that we think things up first before we act. And along the lines of the popular ‘Rockefeller habits’ we are told to create a hierarchy of goals that should guide our actions.
But is this really helpful, possible, or the best way? There is no real empirical evidence that it is. Surprising or disappointing as this may sound, that’s just how it is. Research has not demonstrated that starting with clear, goals, objectives, purpose, etc. really works. Furthermore, large amounts of resources are wasted on creating fantastic but ineffective mission and vision statements, strategic plans are usually outdated before they are written.
Also, thinking that our own goals matter most in leading a business is quite egocentric actually. Why would these matter most? As referred to in an earlier post on Sinek’s work, why is Steve Jobs’ desire to ‘put a ding in the universe’ a good basis for a business?
If we accept that an organization’s reason to exist is value creation, then its offerings – its value-added products and services – are its main starting point. After all, it is through its offerings that an organization creates value – for its customers, other stakeholders or society at large. If we take this serious, it means that when we make strategy, it is our offerings rather than our goals that are the true starting point. So, we start with the value we create rather than with our aspirations.
This is an important shift in perspective. It implies that, rather than aligning everything we do with our bigger goals, objectives, purpose etc., we align it with the value we create. So, we don’t worry so much about whether our resources, processes, people, policies, etc. help us achieve our goals. But we do worry whether they help us create value through our offerings.
The most interesting and counter-intuitive part of this shift is that it makes the values and goals we have a means to create value rather than the final end. So, rather than asking whether our offerings help us achieve our goals, we ask ourselves whether our goals help us create our offerings. Or in other words, rather than starting with why, we start with what.