The Importance of Starting With "i"

Why do most new year’s resolutions fail to provide lasting results? Why do even the best sales teams manage only a 10% cold call conversion rate? And why do some leaders attract a cult-like following while others struggle to hold authority - even with the threat of job termination in their back pocket?

“Why?” is an interesting question. But is it “the” question?


In his best-selling book, “Start With Why”, Simon Sinek asserts that we are most motivated when moving from Why to How to What. That the reason we do what we do drives us far more than the end product itself. I tend to agree.

Having spent the past twenty odd years working in the largest change management experiment in history, the advertising industry, my observations match Mr Sinek’s. A compelling “why” is incredibly persuasive.

In fact, in 1978 the Journal for Personal and Social Psychology published a study conducted by Ellen Langer, detailing an experiment where researchers cut in line to use a photocopier. What they found was, that without a reason why they were challenged, but even the most tenuous of whys got them to the front of the line.

So, why does in fact motivate us. But it’s effects are often temporary.

If you’ve ever been on a diet, you’ll know what I mean. When you start with why, you can indeed enjoy a lot of success - got a wedding or a school reunion coming up, maybe a summer holiday - you starve yourself for a few weeks and the kgs drop like magic.

Given a big enough why, any what is achievable. However, achievable doesn’t mean sustainable.

What motivates us more than why (y) is identity (i).

That school reunion may get you into your high school size jeans, but your identity will get you back into some comfy tracksuit pants a couple of months later. That is of course, unless you manage your i as well as your y.

Our identity drives every decision we make. ID compels us beyond the reason of IQ or even the emotional appeal of EQ. It determines the products we buy, the organisational cultures we buy in to and the leaders and movements we follow willingly and voluntarily.

The truth is, we don’t buy product features or benefits, we don’t buy in to job descriptions or packages, we don’t even buy brands or sales promises, we buy ourselves. We buy into the i we want to project to the world.

Sales people and marketers get this wrong all the time. They run a promotion (a big, although mostly manipulative, why) then they try to shift a product or service that conflicts with or challenges a customer’s identity. It never works.

People will defend their identity with irrational fervor.

Success therefore isn’t about what you do, it’s about who you are, why you do it and your ability to align your i and y with your customers’ i and y.

I call it Y-Dentity™.

It’s a lesson Kodak has had to learn the hard way. In the 1980s the brand was all about preserving memories - “They may just be snapshots to you Mr Rutherford, but to me, they’re irreplaceable memories...” So said the advertising of the day.

Then, in the overly pragmatic 90s and 00s, they went back to being a company that manufactured film. A decision that cost them when digital formats came of age.

People still have a need for preserving memories (hard drives, data storage, photographic back ups, family tree software, government record keeping and the like) but not so much use for a film manufacturer.

Other businesses have flourished on the back of their i and y.

Simon Sinek often attributes the success of Steve Jobs and Apple to their why - their need to challenge the status quo, to test the authority of “Big Blue” IBM and their desire to make a “computer for the rest of us”. I’d argue that they also provided a compelling i.

I want to be “a crazy one, a misfit, a round peg in a square hole, a rebel..."

I also like to “think different..."

After all, “I’m a Mac!”


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The Importance of Starting With "i"
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