Organizational change: Think ‘what’ not ‘why’

I am very proud to share that recently, in an effort to more effectively drive organizational change, I became a Certified ScrumMaster. Throughout the course I took leading up to the certification test, our instructor discussed the need to “start with the why,” referencing Simon Sinek as the ideal resource to understand why we should start with the why. But as Dr. Seuss would likely state – I do not understand starting with the why…why oh why should we start with the why?

HubSpot effectively summarizes something else, Simon says –

But Apple starts with “why.” It is the core of their marketing and the driving force behind their business operations. To help illustrate this point, imagine if Apple also started backwards by creating a marketing message that started with “what.”

“We make great computers. They’re user-friendly, beautifully designed, and easy to use. Want to buy one?”

While these facts are true, I’m not sold. We want to know why they are great and user-friendly. Turns out Apple has figured this out over the years and knows better. Here’s what a real marketing message from Apple might actually look like.

“With everything we do, we aim to challenge the status quo. We aim to think differently. Our products are user-friendly, beautifully designed, and easy to use. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?”

See how different that feels? Because Apple starts with “why” when defining its company, it’s able to attract customers who share its fundamental beliefs. As Sinek puts it, “People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.” Starting with “why” makes Apple more than just a computer company selling features, and that’s why their products have flourished while their competitors’ products with similar technology and capabilities have often flopped.


Apple obviously started with the ‘what.’ “With everything we do, we aim to challenge the status quo. We aim to think differently. Our products are user-friendly, beautifully designed, and easy to use.” – Great. But if I didn’t already know what Apple did, this would be meaningless. This also completely ignores subsets of Apple’s customer base that prefers the iPhone and iPad, with little regard for Apple. Not to mention, it’s efforts in driving organizational change for its business customers.

As my hero, Bob Hoffman has written –

“For the most part, nobody cares very deeply about our pickles, our half-and-half, our mayonnaise, our cookies, our tires, our pencils, chewing gum, toothbrushes, umbrellas, dishwashers, napkins, toasters, gasoline, horseradish, dental floss, paper towels, golf balls, shoe laces, pillows, deodorants, nail clippers, furniture polish, frozen chicken strips, lamps, potting soil, bathing caps, glassware, clocks, fungicide, dish towels, cat litter, sun block, cookie dough, motor oil, light bulbs, ironing boards, fire insurance, coffee filters, pillow cases, mouthwash, vacuum cleaner bags, and shower curtains. I’m sorry. They just don’t.

Most marketers have a hard time recognizing that while their brand is vitally important to them, it is of little consequence to their customers. If you’re a marketer and you believe people love your brand because they happen to buy it, you’re kidding yourself.”

“I promise you, if Pepsi would disappear tomorrow, most Pepsi “brand lovers” would switch to Coke with very little psychological damage.”

I’m sure Apple is very proud of their culture and I’m sure most customers don’t care, so long as they can go on Tik-Tok.

I would also argue that at no point in his explanation did he offer a why. Maybe I’m missing it. Either way, let’s be clear –

WHAT: They make computers, smartphones, devices, and accessories

HOW: By employing a “Systematic Product Development Process, placing substance over form, quality above all, designing for the future, while appreciating the fact that design is a continuous process.”

WHY?: Because the culture Steve Jobs created is one that applies the “how,” making it appealing to customers who develop brand affinity through trust. Jobs famously cared how chipsets, elements to a computer the average consumer would never see, are set up in Apple’s products. And Jony Ive’s skills in design and innovation are arguably unmatched.

I’m sure someone at Apple spewed out the BS that Sinek cited. I’m also sure that it is marketing speak and that any developer worth their weight would hear such a statement and immediately ask – “ummm…OK…but what do you do?”

Simon then shares the most ridiculous concept I have seen in a while…the Golden Circle

Why – This is the core belief of the business. It’s why the business exists.
How – This is how the business fulfills that core belief.
What – This is what the company does to fulfill that core belief.

Sounds simple, right? But what Sinek found is that most companies do their marketing backwards. They start with their “what” and then move to the “how.” Most of these companies neglect to even mention “why.” More alarmingly, many of them don’t even know why they do what they do!


I watched a Ted Talk where Simon explained this, as well as started reading his book. I only started reading his book because I likely would have lost my mind if I read any more of this nonsense.

Let me explain why you can’t start with the why in any situation, especially when driving organizational change –

  • You have to start with the what. We can’t walk into a Scrum team meeting or any meeting for that matter and start speaking as if we’re in the middle of a sentence already – “because snowbirds miss their bagels…” This is indeed the why. But unless we first explain what we do – “we are a bagel shipping service,” nobody will have any idea what we’re talking about. This hippy nonsense about starting with the why defies logic
  • After defining what you are doing, you need to define the how. You can’t state “We are a bagel shipping service because snowbirds miss their bagels.” NO developer on earth gives a rat’s ass why anyone is doing anything. They want to know what is being done and how so they can align the best resources and allow the proper amount of time (plus a whole bunch of other factors). And if the intention of Scrum is to increase efficiencies, understanding the business’ how as well as their own, is of paramount importance
  • Now we get to the why and while I will concede this influences the spirit of an organization and its team, at a project level, it impresses executives and those that kiss their asses. Don’t confuse a company’s mission statement with the deliverables associated with a campaign or organizational change initiative

As I noted, I couldn’t make it through Sinek’s book but I will concede he did write a few goodies in his book that I enjoyed. Maybe I’ll give him another try. He gets a bit of leniency from me because he’s a marketer. But for Scrum and driving organizational change…it doesn’t add up.

Sidebar – The creators of Scrum also apply the term backlog, which they define as an “ordered list of what is needed to improve the product. It is the single source of work undertaken by the Scrum Team.” Channeling my inner George Carlin, I must say “well…how can something be on a backlog if it hasn’t been attempted yet?” What is wrong with calling it a list of deliverables, noting that each item can be placed on a backlog if it isn’t facilitated in a given sprint?