Knowing the why can inform your actions as a brand, your brand voice, its character, and everything else that helps build it into something people want to have a relationship with
Simon Sinek, Start With Why
Being allocated a seat
I don’t know about you, but I really don’t like being in the middle of three seats on a flight. Give me a choice and I’ll take a window seat. Failing that and I’ll take the aisle. But I’d never choose the middle seat. Yet it happened to me twice last week – but under two different sets of circumstances.
For the outbound flight I hadn’t checked in online and so despite arriving at the airport in good time, I was nevertheless late in the process. A busy flight, a rush for online check in and a tendency by others to arrive earlier meant I was at the back of the queue.
And so my heart sank as I was handed my boarding pass by the check-in agent. I’d been allocated the middle seat and there were no other options. If only I’d checked in online, if only I’d arrived a few minutes earlier. Instead I was resigned to sitting with my knees to my chest, my elbows tight beside me – unable to move; with one-finger typing on my laptop so as not to nudge my flanking passengers. I was squashed and uncomfortable.
I really don’t like that middle seat.
On the inbound flight however, circumstances were different. I arrived at the airport 30 minutes after the scheduled departure of my flight. I’d missed it due to my running late. There were two other possible options available. Firstly, there was another flight leaving within 40 minutes and then secondly, a gap of two hours before the next one. If I could just manage to get a seat on the first one I’d still make it to London and to my meeting on time. If however I was forced to wait two hours, then I’d miss my planned meeting.
I needed to get on the next flight.
As I ran up to the ticketing desk and gave the agent my details, she told me that the next flight had already closed for check in; that there was nothing that could be done and that I’d have to wait for the flight leaving in two hours.
Now I really had a problem.
I turned to her and said, ‘Please can you get me a seat on the flight – I’ll take any seat’.
She looked back at her screen, typed a few keys and said, ‘It’s been re-opened momentarily and I’ve got you the last seat – here, take this. You’ll need to run to the gate’.
I ran from the desk to security, through screening to the gate and arrived just in time to take my seat on the flight, and still able to make my meeting.
My seat was 17B – the middle seat in a row of three.
The context is the ‘why’. And it’s the ‘why’ which influences our perception and our decision making.
When you can have any seat on an aircraft, being allocated the middle seat of three looks like a poor option. But when the context changes and the only choice is either to take the middle seat or not to take a seat at all, then suddenly it looks not only the better choice but the only viable option.
In this instance, the context and therefore the ‘why’ changes.
All too often we focus on content rather than context. We want to get straight into the detail of the doing. Or to put it another way, we spend countless hours trying to define the ‘how’ or the ‘what’, as opposed to considering the ‘why’.
Imagine a discussion between three team members about which is the best type of fruit. One believes its apples, the other believes its oranges and the third believes its bananas. Someone’s trying to reach a decision by consensus whilst another is more forcefully giving their view on the choice. There’s someone taking notes and a list of actions is being created. More likely than not, one of those actions is to have another meeting. The discussion goes on and on and no one can agree.
Maybe the discussion you’re having with your team isn’t one about fruit, but does the situation sound familiar?
Now add some context to the discussion.
How long would the conversation have to last now in order to agree which would be the best fruit to get the highest level of Vitamin C?
Four ways to keep context front of mind
If you want to agree on the best fruit but don’t have the context of vitamin C then the discussion is most likely circular and monotonous. With the context set, the discussion would be clear and concise.
When communicating decisions, communicate the ‘why’
Context can be internally driven by our perception of the situation, or it can be externally set by factors determining circumstances. So, in the aircraft example above, it’s our perception of the situation which matters. However in the fruit example, then it’s the process of providing and communicating the ‘why’ which is more likely to help frame the set of circumstances and in turn, to resonate with those involved.
Next time you make a decision, consider ‘Why did I decide that?’
The value associated with a particular decision or course of action is determined by context.
If you’re fully aware of the circumstances which form the setting for an event, statement or idea then you have context. So next time you make a decision, consider the extent to which you understood the context and give some thought to your ‘why’.
Next time you have either a positive or negative reaction to an event, statement or idea, consider, ‘Why did I react that way?’
Your interpretation of events or the value associated with them is determined by context. If you have a particularly positive or negative reaction to an event, statement or idea, then it’s likely down to your perception of that; the context you give it, the frame you provide it, or the ‘why’. When this happens, consider the ‘why’ and try to explore the context in which you are interpreting the event.
If you’re with a group or team and unable to reach a decision, take a step back from the discussion and ask ‘Why are we making this decision?’
Understanding context allows you to develop a strategic plan. It allows you to define how you’re going to do it and what you need to do. But rather than getting bogged down in the detail, stop. Open out your thinking and consider ‘why’ you were trying to make the decision in the first place. Revisiting that question can often provide clarity of thinking.
Most of us have those times when we’re so into the detail of a particular problem that we lose sight of the overarching needs of growing the business. We can end up being the single biggest restriction to growth due to our inability to think more strategically, to think longer-term; to remember the context and focus on the ‘why’.
Regardless of the size of your business, if you aren’t doing that level thinking, no one else will. And by focusing on context rather than content, you can focus on that which brings meaning and purpose and clarity.