I’ve written about some of the difficulties of describing your “why” as an innovation services firm. I began thinking about our “why” last year when Melissa Bugai first introduced Simon Sinek’s talk to me. The process I went through at Atomic to get to a consensus description of our “why” made me realize something interesting. After explaining Simon’s idea, I asked various Atoms the question, “What do you think the ‘why’ of AO is?” I almost invariably got answers to an equally important, but very different question, namely, “Why do I work at AO?” I’m now calling these two questions the “existential why” and the “practical why”.
The “existential why” is Simon Sinek’s “why”: why the company exists, what we’re passionate about, the common interest that binds us together. It’s external facing, and hence potentially useful for marketing.
The “practical why” is important to attract and retain top people, for company leadership to understand what makes an effective and satisfying workplace, what motivates employees, what you can expect from them, and why they chose to work for you.
First cut at “existential why”
You can see the lack of “why” clearly in Atomic’s first website. It focused exclusively on our “what” and “how”. Here are the first few lines from our 2001 home page:
Atomic Object builds great software.
[Great software] comes from smart people using a disciplined process.
That website went into considerable detail about the services we offered, how we tested and worked iteratively, what pair programming and test automation were all about, etc. Lots of “what” and “how”; definitely no “why”. This made a lot of sense at the time. Simon hadn’t yet raised my awareness of the what/how/why distinction, and I was a craftsman very much in love with my craft, excited to share that love, and convinced that how we did things was good for our clients.
Before I started asking around, I took a crack at describing our “why”. Here’s how it came out:
Generalists build great software,
collaboratively with clients,
predictably in time & budget,
while respecting the craft and the builders.
Ugh! Ten years later and my first cut is still talking about “what” and “how”. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue either. Melissa put it quite clearly in an email to me:
It’s not a why. Recently it struck me that it’s a how. That nicely fills in the middle ring of the why-how-what structure. But I was still curious what the bullseye is – what’s the why? It occurs to me that you already know the answer and have articulated it. … So let me ask you this: Why did you leave [the University] and start AO? What belief, goal, or motivation did you have for starting a software company in a world where software companies were everywhere?
Succinct analysis and a great question. She then came up with an alternative and got a lot closer to what I think is our true “why”:
We believe there is a better way to build software.
Melissa explained her take on our “why” in terms of the “what” and “how” I’d used:
[The “why”] is something anyone can get behind. We do believe there is a better way to build software, and we’re always seeking it. We stay generalists because new stuff is always coming and we’re ready for it. We work collaboratively because it’s the best way to build software. We have integrity as craftsmen because it produces better software. We aren’t settled on our process because new things make our process better every project, every week. … We are always out to find the better way to build software.
I re-phrased our “why” a bit after this email exchange with Melissa, putting the emphasis on the act of searching and finding, not just believing, and adding the ultimate goal, which is the creation of great software. Here’s my second version of the “existential why” of Atomic Object:
To find better ways of building great software.
The verb “find” brings to mind a quest, curiosity, restlessness, and discovery. That’s what it feels like at AO. The verb “build” acknowledges we’re engineers, not scientists; our work is to create things.
For any sufficiently interesting or hard problem at Atomic, I engage other people to help me solve it. When I started explaining the Sinek “why”, and asking for ideas, I discovered the distinction between the existential and practical whys. During a recent Board meeting I sought the “existential why” from senior Atoms. I arrived at our current best answer to Simon’s question. The “existential why” of Atomic Object is:
To build great software and find better ways of doing it.
Not as short and pithy, but reversing the order better reflects our priorities as a business. After all, we aren’t running a software development think tank or research institute. We come to work every day to build great software for our clients.
At that same Board meeting, the conversation around the “practical why” was also interesting. Some of the answers I got to that question, namely, “why do you work at AO?” included:
- the people
- pride of work
- never stagnating
This in turn fostered a discussion about retention and growth.
Though we didn’t always articulate it this concisely, our “why” has been strong and consistent from day one. We’ve evolved our service offering (the “what”) substantially in ten years, and we’ve made huge strides in our quest to find better ways (the “how”). But Atomic’s raison d’être, and the underlying goal of everything we do has remained the same. And that’s a powerful force.
I’d be very curious to hear from others that have tried to define their “why”. Was it really clear, simple and obvious? Did you struggle as I did? Did you find it useful?
- Atomic Ownership, Part 6: Lessons Learned - November 26, 2019
- Atomic Ownership, Part 5: Distributions - May 1, 2019
- Atomic Ownership, Part 4: Financing employee ownership - April 4, 2019
- Atomic Ownership, Part 3: Valuation - January 2, 2019
- Atomic’s purpose: to be a company where work matters - November 5, 2018