TED asks you why

Someone last week sent me a link to Simon Sinek talking at the TED conference on the topic 'How Great Leaders Inspire Action'. I've just listened to it and discover that it's about the power of knowing 'why' you do something. Sinek has a website and a book devoted to the topic 'Start with Why'. He has taken a simple idea – the power of what, how, why – and converted it into a money-spinner.

Basically, he suggests that unless people know 'why' they do something, or belived in what they do they will get know where. His view is that it is not enough to know 'what' you do. To inspire followers you have to show your belief in 'why' you do it. Among the examples in the TED video are apple, the Wright brothers, and Martin Luther King ("who gave the 'I have a dream' speech, and not the 'I have a plan' speech").

I found the talk, website, (and free download book chapter) interesting on a number of counts

It endorsed my view that leaders don't know why: In my work with organizations one of sticking points in the organization design is always the first question I ask. 'Why does the organization exist?' (beyond making money). Almost no individual leader can answer it. And I've never met an executive team that can answer it with the same collective answer. If the executive team is twelve members invariably there are twelve different answers to the question 'why does this company exist? Or 'Why is this company in business?'

But without an agreed answer to that starting question it is impossible to design an organization effectively. Why? Because if you don't know what you're designing for, how can you design it?

It omitted any points related to workers don't know why either: Beyond leaders not knowing why their organizations are in business quite often workers don't know why they do the job they do (beyond making a living for themselves). They do not know where their piece of the work fits into the overall system, how it contributes to profitability, and what would happen organizationally – if anything – if their job did not exist. This does not produce a motivated,engaged workforce.

I talked the other day to a person who is in charge of hiring senior executives in her organization. Her side role is organizing a food drive (collecting food for homeless and destitute families). Her eyes shone as told me how she'd been down to the food center, met homeless people, seen their desperation and gratitude and how she 'really believed' the food drive would help. None of this energy was evident in her description of what she did to recruit executives – and she had no answer to the question 'why are you recruiting executives' beyond 'that's my job'.

It made me think that TED itself is a good example of organization that appears to know why it exists. From its website you learn that TED is a small nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading.

Chris Anderson, Chief Curator of TED, was recently named one of Fast Company's Most Creative People 2010. He says:

At TED, every time we've listened to radical openness, we've been grateful." … [He] has guided it into a newly global, open-source phase this year. Volunteers have translated thousands of videos into 76 languages and introduced TEDx, independently organized events that in the first year has produced an astonishing 500 gatherings in 70 countries and 35 languages. "Any business adviser might have told us 10 years ago, 'Oh, beware! You're going to dilute your brand,' " says Anderson. "TEDx has massively enhanced the brand by showing just how widespread this desire is to be stimulated and inspired .

Browsing their website I realized that many of their videoed talks would be a wonderful addition to the leadership development program that I'm currently getting involved in. Not only that the idea that the organization I am working with could run its own TEDx conference sprang to mind. Why would I get involved in orchestrating this? I believe the organization is in desperate need of showing it can have and implement new ideas that will make it successful.