What is the real reason you do what you do?

This is Seth Godin’s blog today and it is spot on. At the end, if you can, answer the question in the title.

What’s it for?

If, seventy years ago, you asked Henry Luce, “What is Time magazine for?” he’d probably talk about setting society’s agenda, capturing the attention of the educated and powerful and most of all, delivering the best weekly news package he could.

Today, the answer is clear. The purpose of the magazine is to make as much money as possible. Everything else is in service of that goal.

It used to be that the profit enabled the magazine to reach its goals. Today, the goal is to reach the profit.

If you ask a typical food service manager at a typical high school what school lunch is for, the answer is probably not, “to educate kids about healthy food and help them to make nutritious choices for a lifetime.” No, the answer is probably, “to feed as many kids as fast and as cheaply as we can, given the limited resources we have.”

And if you ask someone working at a kitchen gadget company what the latest item is for, the truthful answer probably has nothing at all to do with pitting an avocado efficiently, or making a good cup of coffee. The honest answer would revolve around ease of manufacturing, pleasing the rep and the store buyer and most of all, producing an item that sells in volume and turns a profit without too many people sending it back.

In most b2b situations, the answer is always the same, “to please my boss.”

Sure, we’re good at making up backstories to explain our actions, to craft the ‘why’ that’s ostensibly behind the reason we do things. But c’mon. The answer to, “what’s it for” is all about what drives the person who makes the non-obvious decisions. If you’re always having to recalibrate your actions to match someone else’s decisions, that’s the real ‘for’.

Fedex used to believe that they were in the customer service business, and that speed and reliability were the driving factor behind everything they did. Now, it seems, they are in the profit business. That the purpose of all of those people and all of those trucks and planes is to maximize profit. The rest is merely a means to that end.

I think maximizing near-term profit can be a productive goal, especially if that’s what those you work with and partner with expect. I’m pointing out that the spin of substituting something loftier can truly confuse people inside and outside of your organization. And of course, when the only rudder you have is ‘profit now,’ expect that your long term prospects are in doubt, threatened by those with a different goal, one more congruent with their customer’s needs.

Economics often trumps good intent, particularly at scale and over time. Decision-making power accrues to those that spend and make money, one reason that industrialization and time suck the art out of so many things.

Being clear about what we’re doing and why is the first step in doing it better. If you’re not happy about the honest answer to this question, make substantial changes until you are.

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