Picture this: You’re the CEO of a health system that has low employee engagement, poor patient satisfaction, and declining profit margins. You have have just completed a company visit of a leading digital innovator in the healthcare space that has shown you how they started from where you are and in 12 months turned all this around. Your employees are already stressed due to poor performance and few believe in the promise of digital disruption, and in fact, most are actively looking for reasons to reject any new digital innovation. You know the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect different results — the status quo is not an option. What do you do?

Do you:

  1. Find ways to inspire your team with a compelling vision of a better future, help them get excited about becoming something new and better, and guide them through this huge transition?
  2. Tell them that they just have to accept the inevitable of digital transformation and reprimand or fire those who won’t ”get it” and push the organization forward.

While most of us would want to say we would do #1, the reality is that in practice, that’s not the case.

A recent Forbes article surveyed over 700 CEOs to answer two questions:

  1. Do you prefer to pull your people through inspiration or push them to get things done?
  2. What do you do in practice, pull or push?

While 78% said they preferred to pull and inspire their employees, only 22% said they actually did it in practice.


In our first book, Tension: The Energy of Innovation we were  writing to anyone who wanted to harness tension to liberate their creative genius.  

We focused on the WHAT and HOW of innovation help individuals and organizations unlock their innovative capabilities but,  while we addressed the WHY in the first few chapters of the book, we presumed reader’s CEO had already provided it and so our focus was more on how do you align your own WHY with that of your organization.

However, as we have used the book over the past three years to help people, teams and organizations to become more innovative, we have seen, what we already knew, that Knowing and Doing have no purpose without an inspirational WHY; and indeed, there is no purpose or meaning in any action if it isn’t driven by a compelling WHY.

For example, Southwest bills itself as The Low-cost Airline. That’s the WHY. When a new manager came to the President with the idea to add organic chicken salads (or whatever) as an option for an in-flight food item, the CEO responded, “How will organic chicken salads make us The Low-cost Airline?” and with that the idea was shelved.  

The WHY must come from the top. It doesn’t emerge organically from the rank and file of the organization.

This is why as we would helped organizations execute on the WHAT and the HOW, we would observe that their employees would experiencing two powerful emotions: 1) inspiration — associated with their insights and their realization that they could become a creative geniuses if they were placed in the right context, with the right tools and guidance focused on a meaningful purpose; and 2) depression — as they also realized that what we were doing in the workshop could never be replicated in their organization because their leaders lacked a clear and inspiring organizational WHY to kickstart and sustain innovative endeavors — their leaders didn’t “get it.”

After our workshops, the participants often came up to thank us for what they learned. They were going to use the power of Tension in their own personal startups, or projects they were doing outside work, or as a guide to finding a new job with a company that lived the principles we talked about. Then they shared with us why these ideas would never work in their organization

“He who has a strong enough why,” said Fredrick Nietzche, “can endure almost any how.” We realized that if we could get these organization’s leaders to develop a culture that nurtured and promoted a noble WHY, then the WHAT and the HOW would easily fall into place.

When Mitch, my co-author, joined University of Missouri Health System as its new CEO, there was no clear and inspiring WHY and there was just enough Knowing to get the minimum Doing done. Their organizational performance was in the pits.

The health system was losing money, patient satisfactions was at 15%, employee engagement was the worst among the eight hospital systems in its region, and the health system’s performance rankings were also the worst in the city and among its peers.

Three years after embarking on their WHY journey, patient satisfaction increased from 15% to 90%; employee engagement and health system performance went from worst to #1; and they were at last profitable.

Solving for Why works and delivers peak performance when CEOs realize they need to abandon conventional wisdom.

When leaders confront challenges like Mitch did when he started at University of Missouri they generally start with the misguided playbook that says we will be more successful if we:

  1. Develop a new strategy
  2. Implement best practices
  3. Benchmark at peer levels
  4. Apply Lean Six Sigma processes
  5. Focus on maximizing shareholder value

All of this conventional wisdom for transforming performance is focused on the WHAT and HOW, but, to quote Peter Drucker “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Culture is the repository of WHY, and if culture is broken no amount of HOW and WHY will deliver peak performance.

The place to start in transforming your organization is not on the WHAT and the HOW but on culture — on the WHY. By creating a compelling vision based upon some powerful and emotional values that drive desired behaviors you will see spontaneous order emerge from the chaos of dysfunction and the bioproduct will be peak performance.

So in many ways, our new book, Solving for Why,  is the prequel to Tension. If you can start with creating the right culture that combines the organizational WHY with the individual WHY, then the WHAT and the HOW will enable Peak Performance to spontaneously emerge within your organization.

If you want to bring the WHY into your organization, download a sample chapter at chriswasden.com/why.


Get the first chapter of Solving for Why, free!

Get the first chapter of Solving for Why, free!