Sunday, 7 January 2018

Academic research: are you driven by “what” or by “why”?

Why do you go to work? Does your job have an inspirational purpose? Here, I draw on Simon Sinek’s ideas to reflect on my profession and work (I am an academic), and in particular, to consider what drives many academics to do research.



Sinek presents what he calls the Golden Circle (Figure 1) to help employees and customers evaluate what makes them buy into an organization. The Golden Circle consists of three concentric circles or layers:

Why - This is the core belief of an organization. It's the motivation for why an organization exists.
How - This how an organization goes about fulfilling that core belief. It is an organization’s process or approach.
What - This is what an organization does to fulfill that core belief. It is an organization’s key products services and other outputs.


Figure 1. The Golden Circle (adapted from Simon Sinek)

Sinek argues that all organizations know “what” they do; that is, they know what business they are in, and what products and services they provide. But only some organizations really know “how” they do what they do; that is, the extent to which organizations focus on distinctive capabilities such as being fast, being safe, being convenient, being high quality, etc. at delivering their offerings. And very few organizations know “why” they do what they do. The “why” is not about being the biggest, having the largest market share, making profits, or satisfying shareholders. These are outcomes related to how desirable your “why” is, and how good you are at fulfilling it. The “why” is your organization’s purpose and the reason it exists.

In a popular TED talk Sinek uses the Apple Corporation to explain the importance of being driven by “why” versus “what”.

Why: At Apple we exist to challenge the status quo. We believe in thinking differently.
How: The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user friendly
What: We just happen to make great electronic devices.

Starting with and being driven by a compelling “why” gives people a strong reason to buy your products and services. This same “why” also gives people an enthralling reason to work for you. The layers of the Golden Circle can be applied to individuals and their jobs: What do you do? How do you do what you do? Why do you do what you do?

Reflecting on my own profession, as an academic, I would argue that many of us embark on this career driven by a strong “why”. We aspire to create and teach knowledge in different fields so as to positively impact the world. But universities, like other organizations, increasingly use a variety of performance measurement systems to direct, track and reward academic activities and outputs. We have tenure and promotion, accreditation, research assessments, and institutional rankings. These are all underpinned by metrics for funding, publication, citation rates, and a “publish or perish culture”. Like other organizations many of these systems of measurement and control are elevating the importance of “what” in universities, while diminishing the “why”. Consider the following:

So, to what extent are you driven by “what” versus “why”?


Leading with “what” tends to result in optimizing behaviors that are gamed to suit the dominant measurement and reward systems that govern many of today’s universities. Rethinking your “why” will help drive a different, more gratifying and impactful, research process and research products. Remember, society doesn’t just read and use “what” you do, it reads and uses “why” you do it.



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