Finding our inner why

Purpose is the new mission and vision, all rolled into one. Companies that can’t articulate what their higher purpose is – beyond the fiduciary duty they owe to their shareholders to turn a profit – are so last century. Simon Sinek’s Start With Why is an international best-seller, and his TED Talk How great leaders inspire action is the third most-watched of all time, now with more than 23 million views.

There’s even tantalising evidence that purpose-led businesses outperform those that haven’t stopped to think why they exist, a meme captured most famously in Grow, penned by P&G’s former CMO, Jim Stengel. And while his thesis – that the highest-performing companies used the power of brand ideals to drive success – has recently come under academic scrutiny and attack, there is no denying that the biggest, most cash rich company in corporate history (that’s Apple, by the way) has been built with purpose – its “why” – worn proudly on its sleeve. As long ago as 1977, Steve Jobs was quoted as saying: “What we’re trying to do is remove the barrier of having to learn to use a computer.”

It was with this in mind that Insight Agents’ Founder & MD, Sam Knowles, spoke to philosopher, author, behavioural scientist, and entrepreneur, Eric Bartels. Eric is also the brains and intellectual brawn behind Utrecht and New York-based business, Inner Why. An iconoclastic original thinker and applied psychologist, Eric’s views on insight threaten to shake the research and insight industry to its very foundations.

Eric Bartels’ purpose is all about purpose. He’s developed a proprietary methodology to help businesses and brands find and express their true purpose, turn purpose into strategy and then – unlike so many consultancies – turn strategy into technical action plans. And as the company’s name suggests, Bartels and his colleagues act as ‘idea midwives’ (my phrase), helping executives to locate and articulate corporate purpose from within themselves.

Captivated by the success of Cupertino’s favourite son, Bartels is currently finishing off his fourth book, Be A Steve – And Build Your Own Apple. He cites Jobs’ contention that, in building the iMac, Apple never asked focus groups what type of computer they wanted; they built the computer they wanted for themselves, that was beautiful and elegant, and that made technology our slave, not our master. For Jobs, Apple’s purpose involved domesticating technology, a phrase he used from the early days onwards.

Bartels’ own research among high-performing executives suggests that it’s the leaders who run businesses that operate from a clearly-defined sense of purpose who thrive. Jobs’ repeated experience – at least once he came back to Apple in the mid-1990s – and Tim Cook’s ever since assuming leadership of the company on Jobs’ death four years ago, runs counter to the orthodoxy that you need customer research to validate new product development. As Bartels points out, approaching 96% of all new product launches fail. “It’s not because they don’t research consumers or customers – they almost all do. Rather, it’s because the businesses hadn’t found or articulated why they were in business. Their purpose.”

For Bartels, the insights that are the key to an impactful, purpose-led value proposition exist within the individuals who make up the body corporate of a business. For Inner Why, companies are simply organisms made up of individuals. This is true of a centuries-old business every bit as much as a start-up. Of the CEO and those on the shop floor. And of the agencies who shape and articulate the company’s brand communications.

With an eclectic toolkit out of the comfort zone of many marketers, Bartels uses Jungian archetypes (the King, the Trickster, the Sage) as one of the lenses through which he encourages companies to explore the meaning and purpose of the brands they embody, as individuals and as teams. The toolkit also includes neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), and cognitive and behavioural psychology. And all Inner Why consultants have been trained in hypnosis.

“Brand custodians get stuck with the persona of what they think they should be,” says Bartels, “of what they think their customers want to hear. Then they get paralysed by the so-called rules that dictate they research their products and target audiences to death. This leads to dysfunctional and inauthentic brand behaviour, to companies failing to express their purpose – their inner why. Our aim is to be disruptive and change all that. To get companies and the individuals that comprise a corporate organism to look inside themselves for the language, the purpose which – often much to their surprise – they find was living inside them all along.”

The rise and dominance of Big Data and the need for all decisions to be evidence-based is, Bartels believes, working against business’ best interests. Many agencies and advisors arm leaders with data or at best casual observations, but certainly not insights. Business school teaches CEOs and CFOs to make bad decisions they can justify with their left brain, not the right decisions from within that intuition and instinct suggest are correct but cannot be proven unequivocally.

Bartels is clear that his approach is neither fashionable nor easy to accept. Many of the (left-brained) leaders he encounters struggle with his approach, and it’s only those with a streak of rebelliousness who truly “get” and embrace the journey within to find and articulate purpose. Entrepreneurs are much more open to his approach, and he cites his hero Steve Jobs’ observation that if Henry Ford had listened to his customers rather than his purpose-led vision, “he’d have struggled to build a faster horse. Data-driven insights can only help give a business purpose if its meaning is assessed with a right/left brain balance; with empathy and without ego.”

In addition to Apple, the businesses Bartels rates as the most insightful – those that have gone within to find and express their true purpose – include IKEA, Starbucks under Howard Schultz first time around, and fish-food company Tetra. His techniques may be idiosyncratic, his philosophy may be controversial – and at 180 degrees from conventional marketing, research, and insight generation wisdom. But his energy and impact on how businesses find and express their purpose in undeniable. What a breath of fresh air.

A version of this discussion will appear in Sam Knowles’ forthcoming book, How To Be Insightful, due for publication in Autumn 2016.

Read more on purpose, on purpose:

* Eric Bartels (forthcoming). Be A Steve – And Build Your Own Apple. Inner Why Publishing.

* David Hieatt. (2014). Do Purpose: Why Brands with a Purpose Do Better and Matter More. Do Books.

* Simon Sinek (2011). Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone To Take Action. Penguin.

* Jim Stengel (2012). Grow: How Ideals Power Growth and Profit at the World’s 50 Greatest Companies. Virgin Books.