Not the Only Way, Just One Way
Knowing your WHY is not the only way to be successful, but it is the only way to maintain a lasting success and have a greater blend of innovation and flexibility. When a WHY goes fuzzy, it becomes much more difficult to maintain the growth, loyalty and inspiration that helped drive the original success. By difficult, I mean that manipulation rather than inspiration fast becomes the strategy of choice to motivate behavior. This is effective in the short term but comes at a high cost in the long term. Consider the classic business school case of the railroads. In the late 1800s, the railroads were the biggest companies in the country. Having achieved such monumental success, even changing the landscape of America, remembering WHY stopped being important to them.
Instead they became obsessed with WHAT they did— they were in the railroad business. This narrowing of perspective influenced their decision-making—they invested all their money in tracks and crossties and engines. But at the beginning of the twentieth century, a new technology was introduced: the airplane. And all those big railroad companies eventually went out of business. What if they had defined themselves as being in the mass transportation business? Perhaps their behavior would have been different. Perhaps they would have seen opportunities that they otherwise missed. Perhaps they would own all the airlines today. The comparison raises the question of the long-term survivability of so many other companies that have defined themselves and their industries by WHAT they do.
They have been doing it the same way for so long that their ability to compete against a new technology or see a new perspective becomes a daunting task. The story of the railroads has eerie similarities to the case of the music industry discussed earlier. This is another industry that has not done a good job of adjusting its business model to fit a behavioral change prompted by a new technology. But other industries whose business models evolved in a different time show similar cracks— the newspaper, publishing and television industries, to name but three. These are the current-day railroads that are struggling to define their value while watching their customers turn to companies from other industries to serve their needs. Perhaps if music companies had a clearer sense of WHY, they would have seen the opportunity to invent the equivalent of iTunes instead of leaving it to a scrappy computer company.
In all cases, going back to the original purpose, cause or belief will help these industries adapt. Instead of asking, “WHAT should we do to compete?” the questions must be asked, “WHY did we start doing WHAT we’re doing in the first place, and WHAT can we do to bring our cause to life considering all the technologies and market opportunities available today?” But don’t take my word for it. None of this is my opinion. It is all firmly grounded in the tenets of biology.