Purpose by Seth Sawyers

Why Do You Do What You Do?

That was the question Donte, our VP of Culture, posed to the audience at AIGA’s recent HIVE Conference. Over the course of his career, Donte has posed this question to numerous designers and developers. More often than not, each individual responded with a personal anecdote, many of which alluded to an innate curiosity or a passion for learning and solving problems. What Donte observed is that most people have a story arc attributable to how they got into their chosen field but very few are able to identify and articulate their why.

Economic studies have shown that most of us who are happy in our line of work are intrinsically motivated - we enjoy doing something because the act itself is personally rewarding for its own sake. Contrast that with those who are extrinsically motivated and engage in a behavior to seek financial reward or to avoid punishment. Both forms of motivation have their function yet people who seek extrinsic forms of motivation are generally less fulfilled and don’t perform as well in the long term.

It may seem like a gross oversimplification, but people want to do work that matters. We want to do work that resonates with us on a personal level and pushes the right buttons.

The same thing is true at an organizational level. At Substantial, we’ve done sexy projects and projects that were decidedly less so. What we’ve learned is that “sexy” work isn’t always rewarding work. Doing work that has deeper meaning and provides interesting challenges is what keeps us collectively happy and leads to a sense of purpose and fulfillment.

Many companies fail to recognize the “why” behind their work and focus on the more tangible “what” and “how.” For example, “We build the best widgets, using the best materials and fabrication techniques.” The “what” is the most tangible descriptor of an organization’s output, but not necessarily the most important.

Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why, came up with a concept called The Golden Circle to explain this concept, which leads to statements like “We believe products should outlive their makers, so we build the best widgets, using the best materials and fabrication techniques.”

More inspirational, huh?

Simon Sinek's Golden Circle

Sinek deploys the Golden Circle primarily as a marketing and sales exercise but the concept is more universal than that. The corporate why is a self-reinforcing cycle that inspires and reinforces purpose.

Donte drew upon several examples of corporate “why’s” to illustrate purpose in action.

  • Google: make the world’s information universally accessible and useful
  • BMW: creating the ultimate mobility experiences
  • GE: build, move, power, and cure the world

As in these examples, each company’s why goes beyond the tangible products they build or the service they deliver. For all of us, our “why” should be our North Star. What we do is more than just what we build.

Your why will attract like-minded, motivated employees to your organization and help to retain them. If the biggest draw of your organization is earning potential, don’t be surprised if people jump ship when a more enticing offer comes along.

As an example, here’s Substantial’s why:
We believe in creating positive cultural impact.

Notice that this doesn’t say we build digital products. Building products is our outcome. It also doesn’t say that we use agile design and development practices. That’s our how. Our “why” is bigger than all of that.

Our why informs the kind of work we pursue, it gives our customers a reason to buy from us, and it speaks to the way we engage with our greater community. It even informs our recruiting strategy and even how we make use of slack time.

Management expert Gary Hamel sums this up nicely saying that, “A noble purpose inspires sacrifice, stimulates innovation and encourages perseverance.”

Your experiences as a person or as a designer are informed by both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The relationship between those two things drives the choices you make. It’s the same with organizations - it’s all just groups of (hopefully aligned) people.

Thought exercises like the Golden Circle are useful tools for helping you to guide and build your company. They can help you build a real, authentic organization with engaged, invested employees.

So now what? How do you these ideas apply to you?

Donte talked about all of these things at both a personal level and an organizational level and that’s because they work similarly. Whether you’re an executive, part of a team, or an individual contributor, the exercise of finding your why works as well bottom up as it does top down. Use your “why” to influence where you can.

Your career, project, team, company, and the world is yours to shape. Not just as designers, or developers, but as people.

In closing, Donte had this to say, “As you leave this conference and head back to the real world, I hope that you will spend time thinking about your own motivation, do the same for your teams and projects, and finally, of your company. We’re all designers. Let’s design the world we want, not forgetting the work we do and the places in which we do it.”

How? Find your why.

Main image from Flickr user Seth Sawyers.