In this article, I outline the key factors for personal and organizational success: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy is the desire to steer our own ship, mastery is the desire to steer it well, and purpose is the need for the journey to mean something. When these three things come together, they will not only help us stay on course, they will also sustain our momentum and generate interest, support and loyalty in others. In practice, this requires us to “Start with Why”, and I illustrate this on the example of the purpose-driven task management system I built for myself.
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Autonomy, mastery and purpose make a strong engine that fuels itself.
For any undertaking, we tend to look at the “What” and the “How”. Starting with “Why” instead has many advantages.
Loyalty is stronger than repeat business, and purpose is superior to passion.
When we reconnect work to its purpose, our daily practice will be easier and more fulfilling.
About Jochen Lillich
Jochen is an entrepreneur with more than 20 years of experience in managing large-scale IT infrastructure. In 1990, he started his career as a freelance software developer. After getting a B.S. in Computer Science from Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences, he founded a managed IT services business and shared his knowledge as a certified Linux trainer. He went on to manage IT teams at two of Germany’s leading internet technology companies. In 2010, Jochen founded freistil IT, a distributed team of web operations experts, which he is leading as Managing Director and CTO. He lives with his family near Dublin, Ireland.
Contacting Jochen Lillich
By Jochen Lillich
Crises like the COVID pandemic or the war in Ukraine are life-altering events. And it appears that some people are better equipped than others to deal with these events and come out the other end well. There is a key factor in mastering challenges and succeeding against strong opposition, and it applies to business strategy and personal life just as much as it does to military operations. What is this key factor?
In his recent article on the war in Ukraine for The Journal, Tom Clonan explains how the Russian invasion of Ukraine is hampered by the rigid command and control structure of the Russian army.
The performance of Putin’s forces in these circumstances demonstrate poor morale, poor or non-existent command and control and an inability to react to a rapidly changing battlefield environment.
(Tom Clonan, “Putin’s running out of conventional military solutions to impose his will on Ukraine”)
The Russian military is still governed by an authoritarian, hierarchical command structure. Orders trickle down from the top, and leave officers on the ground little room for taking initiative or applying the latest local intelligence. Which is precisely what the Ukrainian troops are doing, without the constraints of having to “wait for orders or sanction to act from a General many kilometres to the rear.”
Higher autonomy of junior officers and local commanders isn’t Ukraine’s only advantage. Tom Clonan also observes a stark difference in competence and motivation between the warring parties.
Russian commanders appear unable – or unwilling – to independently problem solve and to use initiative and leadership to fight back. This inability to fight inexorably leads to panic and flight – a recurring feature among Russia’s troops thus far.
The Ukrainians, on the other hand, are highly motivated to fight. It is their mission to defend their homeland, a purpose that carries far beyond “this is a job I’m expected to do”. They can complement this drive with military skill; the Ukrainian forces benefit from their NATO training in recent years.
The strong positive influence of autonomy, mastery and purpose on achieving a goal applies just as well in civil life and in our everyday work.
When we look at today’s business challenges, we realize that the traditional “carrot and stick” tactic doesn’t get us where we want to be any more. (I’d hazard that it’s the same for parenting teenagers.) “Type X behaviour” is the term Daniel Pink coined for when people mainly seek external rewards while avoiding punishment. In his book “Drive”, he makes the case that “Type I Behaviour”, based on intrinsic motivation, is far more successful in the long term.
Behavioural science has found that there are three factors that foster intrinsic motivation the most: autonomy, mastery and purpose.
Type I behaviour is self-directed. It is devoted to becoming better and better at something that matters. And it connects that quest for excellence to a larger purpose.
(Daniel Pink, “Drive”)
When there is a sense of purpose at the centre of what we do, and we’re allowed to apply our growing skill set how we see fit, we not only have a strong engine that drives us forward, we can also generate our own fuel. Intrinsic motivation is renewable energy. Energy that others will be able to feel, too.
In his book “Start with Why”, Simon Sinek illustrates this radiating effect of a strong sense of purpose with a simple diagram consisting of three concentric circles. The outer circle is titled “WHAT”; it stands for the easy to discern actions we take. Inside it, there’s the “HOW” circle. When two people do the same thing, we’re likely to be more impressed by the person who displays better skills, more diligence, or even just visible pleasure at their task. Or take two businesses offering the same kind of product or service. The specific way one of them manufactures or implements their offering can be a major factor in our decision. However, this decision can be short-lived. A reduction in price by the competitor might quickly sway us. According to Sinek, creating loyalty instead of just repeat business is easier when there is a strong “WHY”, the centre of the diagram he calls the “Golden Circle”.
People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.
(Simon Sinek, “Start with Why”)
For example, some people in the tech space are continuously baffled by the success of Apple products. In their eyes, Apple customers are happily paying a premium for devices that will give them just the same level of quality and performance as their major competitors, and will even impose more constraints, for example in choice of software. But this view doesn’t consider the “WHY” that Apple is able to impart to their market. A striking example of how they imbue their products with purpose was their award-winning “1984” commercial for the newly launched Macintosh, in which an athlete in colourful clothing storms to the front of a grey, mindless mass of people watching the talking head of their leader on a giant screen, and proceeds to smash this screen with a sledgehammer. Another commercial later put the Apple attitude in words: “Think different”. The Macintosh did stand out of a sea of PC clones not only with its innovative user interface and case design (its “WHAT”), it also conveyed the purpose of unleashing the creativity and innovation in its users.
The purpose behind the design and creation of a product or service can be a strong differentiating factor. But only if this is confirmed rather than contradicted by its implementation.
If WHAT you do doesn’t prove what you believe, then no one will know what your WHY is and you’ll be forced to compete on price, service, quality, features and benefits; the stuff of commodities.
(Simon Sinek, “Start with Why”)
Entrepreneurs starting a business are often recommended to openly display the passion they have for their endeavour. But it’s important not to confuse being passionate with having a purpose. While it’s good to see when a business pursues their goals with energy, passion alone might not carry as far nor have the same strong impression on potential customers as a deep purpose. On its own, it’s not going to be sustainable. However, passion can be fuelled by a strong WHY, and it needs to be supported by the HOW.
The reason so many small businesses fail, however, is because passion alone can’t cut it. For passion to survive, it needs structure. A WHY without the HOWs, passion without structure, has a very high probability of failure.
(Simon Sinek, “Start with Why”)
Having a strong sense of purpose and letting it guide the way we do what we do is a strong foundation on which both organizations and individuals can thrive. After I realized this, I took the “Find your Why” course that Simon Sinek is offering online. A yellow ball with a smiley face that I have on my desk is a constant reminder of its results.
The power of purpose is also the reason why I’ve built myself a custom task management solution. I’m acutely aware that there are many apps and systems I could use to manage my daily work and reach my goals, and I’ve tried many of them. I found that all of them lacked one crucial part: the connection to the WHY behind all the busyness. On the surface, my home-brew solution has to-do items assigned to projects, just like every other task management tool. What makes my implementation different is that it focuses on purpose. First, instead of “project”, I’m using the term “outcome”. It represents the What that I’m trying to achieve. For example, the outcome of the task of writing this article is “Take part in CongRegation”. Then, there are the objectives, the actual goals I want to achieve by working towards a specific outcome; in other words, the Why behind the What. Each outcome/project is connected to an objective, and I write down a short sentence how it contributes to this objective. The objective behind my participation in CongRegation is “Build meaningful relationships”. Another outcome connected to the same objective is “Stay in contact”, a list of reminders to regularly get in touch with friends and family. On an even more abstract level, objectives are part of an “obligation”, a specific aspect of my life. The objective “Build meaningful relationships” is part of the obligation “Friends and network”, basically my social interactions. There are also obligations like “Joy and emotions”, “Health and fitness” and “Personality and learning”. With this structure, my task management system not only tells me that there’s never enough time to do it all (any to-do list would tell me that), but it also reminds me why I should try my best anyway, and it gives me the context I need in order to prioritize.
By the way, you will have spotted the alliteration of “Outcomes”, “Objectives” and “Obligations”. It allows me to call my system the “O-Zone”, or “O3” for short.
Yes, I’m a nerd. A nerd with a purpose.