At the impressionable age of ten, I was introduced to the books of Lewis Carroll through my participation in my school’s production of Alice in Wonderland. I played the very important role of Humpty Dumpty. It was memorable mostly because I had to shake Alice’s hand to greet her, and at 10 years of age shaking a girl’s hand was pretty nerve-racking. In any case, I carried out the task to critical acclaim and the show ran for a full two nights!
In the original book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, upon which the stage play was based, there is a wonderful exchange between Alice, who is wandering through the woods, and the Cheshire Cat, perched on a branch overhanging the path. When she sees the cat, she asks him a question:
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
Simultaneously whimsical and profound, there is a tremendous lesson businesses can take away from a seemingly simple exchange such as this. In business, we rush to tactics hoping the tactics will solve a bigger problem. We treat symptoms in our business as if they are the problems, confusing motion with progress. We often make decisions based on short-term needs or trends rather than on long-term vision or purpose. We make decisions that “feel” right, not realizing that other people may “feel” differently. This subjective approach to decision making means that although we all mean well, our own biases and feelings might pull us in different directions.
When Simon Sinek delivered his now famous Ted Talk in 2009, he popularized the notion that it was not only acceptable, but actually essential, that we “Start with Why” in everything we do. After all, if we don’t know where we’re going, how can we possibly know which road to take?
Should we hire this person? What should our website copy include? What are the next five marketing campaigns we should consider? What should our logo look like? How can we ensure we develop the best culture? Questions like these are asked every day, but unless we first ask “Why?” or “Where are we going?” we can never truly answer them.
The greatest businesses and organizations lead with a purpose that is greater than their products or services. This purpose determines people, positioning, products, process and profits. From here strategies can be developed that will inform tactics that in turn will (when executed successfully) achieve the goals necessary to fulfill the purpose.
So, the next time you have a difficult decision to make or you can’t get buy-in from team members, stop, look up at the tree limb, and let the Cheshire Cat ask you his question: “Where do you want to get to?”
Once that question is answered it’s amazing how different the solutions can look.
Barry Chandler is the co-founder of Storyforge, a brand strategy company focused on helping companies discover their purpose to allow them achieve their vision, build preference and drive margin. Barry has been building award winning businesses since launching his first company in Ireland in 2003. His last company, a digital marketing agency, was acquired in 2012 by a California-based publicly traded entertainment company which then hired him as Chief Marketing Officer. It is his belief that the greatest brands seek to change the world, improving the lives of their associates, partners and customers.