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The single most powerful question a business can ask itself


I help companies, and individuals, to answer simple questions. The questions they ask themselves give some insight into their ambitions.

  • All businesses have questions about basic realities: “Who needs to do what and when? How much money do we need, and how much will we make?” This means putting together a forecast, a set of targets and a list of things that must be done.
  • Most businesses also address strategy and marketing questions: “Where will we compete, and how will we win?” This means analysing customers and markets and competitors, and coming up with the right business model.
  • Some of the best businesses set out to answer culture questions: “What motivates us, and how do we work together?” These questions require introspection and discussion. The answers could include a statement of purpose and a list of values.

But is there something even beyond these fundamental questions? Something that marks companies out as great? I’d like to argue that there is.

The most powerful question of all is “what is our cause?”

Get the answer right and it becomes a beacon: a core organising idea that ignites the whole business.

It radiates outwards to customers, very much like a marketing message, resonating with them and attracting them.

But crucially, it also radiates inwards to other stakeholders as well – investors, management, employees, business partners – raising their sights and inspiring them all to rally to the cause.

The question is simple.

The best answers are simple too.

But they can also be elusive. Simplicity sometimes hides in plain sight.

Here’s a mixed bag of potentially great answers – some are successes and some are tragic misses. You’ll see that most of them are primarily external marketing slogans. They have to be, in order to fulfil the first criterion of radiating outwards. But they could also work inside their organisation too…

  • Nokia Devices: “Connecting People”. A simple phrase that says a lot. Of course, it is primarily external – it means connecting people to each other and to the internet. It’s noble and even world-changing, although the expression is a little unemotional. Internally it could have been used to promote staff connectedness and cooperation, and it may have been, I don’t know. But there is an irony in being taken over by Microsoft, a company which many argue wasted huge amounts of internal talent with their recently-abandoned HR ‘stack ranking’ approach that set employee against employee. How much more powerful it would be if this philosophy of connecting people was also directed internally.
  • Aunt Bessie’s Ltd: “Bringing Families Together”. I love this one, partly because I facilitated the team that came up with it. The outward message is clear: Aunt Bessie’s makes food that forms part of a family meal. And more than that. The food is the starting point for the social and emotional benefits that follow from eating together as a family. There is also an inward message: an impulse to treat each other within the business as members of an extended family. Indeed there was also an ambitious intention to reunite the company factories and offices on a single site (‘one home’).
  • Tesco: “Every Little Helps”. Brilliant but tragically flawed. Brilliant because for a shopper on a mission, every detail of the store really does make a difference – range, convenience, price, freshness, service, layout, light, temperature, a smile from a member of staff… As for the internal interpretation, it could have been used within the company in a generous way – helping everyone responsible for getting products to the shelves to be positive and co-operative as they worked together. But if it radiated inwards at all, it did so in absolutely the wrong way. What a shame that “every little helps” seems to have been taken instead as a licence to bully suppliers and book profits early. Investigations by the Serious Fraud Office, the Financial Reporting Council and the Groceries Code Adjudicator continue.
  • An architectural practice: “A Partnership of Old and New”. This came out of a brief workshop I did with a firm of architects. It may or may not be pursued but here’s the idea. The external message? The line works very well as a beacon to illuminate the sort of projects where they excel. The practice is based in Cambridge and the work they enjoy most is University and Church work – renovating and extending old buildings. The internal message? Well, the firm (a partnership) faces succession risks, and needs to boost the links between the experienced directors and more junior associates. So the idea also works well internally, although there may be a better wording than ‘old’!
  • Sharpie: “Uncap What’s Inside”. This marketing tagline, for Sharpie markers and pens, is so fantastic it gives me the shivers. Sharpies help you release your inner potential. A great message to customers which would also work brilliantly inside the organisation.
  • And lastly, one for fun: Madness: “You’re a Part of Everything You See”.What’s this? It’s a lyric from a 10-minute song by the cheeky-chappie band Madness. The song, “The Liberty of Norton Folgate”, elevates them from being an enjoyable singles band to a moment of greatness. It’s about London, the history of immigration to London, and being a Londoner. The idea that “You’re a part of everything you see” permeates the song. It’s an invitation to think of yourself as part of a bigger whole, London the dark social river, stretching backwards and forwards in time. It invites tolerance – London doesn’t belong to you; you belong to it. But the words also radiate out to the listeners. Madness is a descendent of the music hall tradition where audiences joined in and were part of the spectacle. You’re a part of everything. You see?

The “what’s our cause” question works better than “why are we in business?” The latter leads to generalities about making money and providing value. All very interesting, but those answers apply to all companies. The cause question is very specific to the organisation.

How about you? What’s your cause?

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