The accepted belief in strategy is that any organization should start with a clear mission, vision, goals, "why," set of values, or any other expression of a bigger purpose and that everything else should be derived from that.
This sounds nice and intuitive. It sounds nice because it make us feel like welldoers who serve a purpose with our organizations. And it sounds intuitive because everything we do needs to start with a reason, right?
But maybe starting your strategy in this way is not always the best idea. Instead, there are good reasons to argue that starting with the value that you offer through your products and services is generally a better idea.
Why? Let me start with a bit of history to explain why the idea that everything should start with a bigger goal is so appealing. This idea reflects what is called "teleological" thinking. As Wikipedia tells us “Teleology or finality is a reason or explanation for something in function of its end, purpose or goal. It is derived from two Greek words: telos (end, goal, purpose) and logos (reason, explanation).” It means we do and explain things by relating it to some future end, goal or purpose.
This idea goes back to the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. It contends that we always start with a goal before we do something. So, if we walk somewhere, we do this because we have a particular goal in mind and if we think about something we also do so because of certain goal.
Teleological thinking is all over the place. We are told to think first before we act and set clear goals and milestones before we embark in a project. And in strategy we hear it all the time. The whole idea of traditional strategy is that we think things up first before we act. And along the lines of the popular "Rockefeller habits" we are told to create a hierarchy of goals that should guide our actions.
But is this really helpful, possible, or the best way? Science shows us that there is no real evidence that it is. Research has not demonstrated that starting with clear goals, objectives, purpose, etc. really works. And because often large amounts of time, effort and resources are spent on creating compelling mission and vision statements, goals and strategic plans, the opportunity costs of doing so are substantial.
When you think about it, assuming that our own goals matter most in leading a business is actually quite egocentric. Why would these matter most? Why, for example, would Steve Jobs’ desire to "put a ding in the universe" (as Simon Sinek summarizes it) be a good basis for an organization and its strategy?
If we accept that an organization’s reason of existence is value creation, then its offerings—its value-added products and services—are its main starting point. After all, it is through its offerings that an organization creates value; for its customers, other stakeholders or society at large. If we take this seriously, it means that when we make strategy, it is our offerings rather than our goals that are the true starting point. So, we start with the value we create rather than with our aspirations.
This is an important shift in perspective. It implies that, rather than aligning everything we do with our bigger goals, objectives, purpose etc., we align it with the value we create. So, we don’t worry so much about whether our resources, processes, people, policies, etc. help us achieve our goals. But we do worry whether they help us create value through our offerings.
The most interesting and counter-intuitive part of this shift is that it makes the values and goals we have a means to create value rather than the final end. So, rather than asking whether our offerings help us achieve our goals, we ask ourselves whether our goals and values help us create valuable offerings. In other words, rather than starting with "why," we start with "what."