The importance of context – or a Why for a why

Context is vital. It provides a grounding for our conversations, focus and actions, both personal and professional. In the same way that punctuation can completely change the essence of a sentence (“Let’s eat, Grandma.” being very different from its non-punctuated alternative), so context can completely change the meaning of what we’re doing. From a work point of view, context helps people understand the why of what we do.

Why is “why” important? The old, dictatorial-style of management that was prevalent when I started working told us to “Jump!” without room for questions. Contextual information was seldom provided. This sometimes led to people being afraid to act, in case what they did was wrong. It also led to the wrong behaviours in certain circumstances. For some good examples of where having the right why can be vital to the success or failure of a venture, Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why” is a good read.

By providing our staff with a set of operating principles (per Ray Dalio, and others), we set the context for any actions to be taken. If we have as one of our principles that we will always act ethically, winning in the marketplace is grounded in that ethical framework. We won’t have to explain to people that defrauding customers to win is not acceptable.

By allowing for questions, we can firmly establish the “why” of the actions that we set to meet our organisational goals. For example, we may tell our team that we must deliver a product by a specific date and that the target is immovable. By providing a “why” (we need this product to remain competitive, and missing the date will result in losing critical market share), we help people understand why they should commit every effort to make it happen. Making room for questions enables people to understand the detail of the “why”.

By providing context (through operating principles and through consistently providing the “why” of our actions), we enable our staff to be more self-directed. In very hierarchical organisations, it is often necessary for junior members of staff to check-in constantly with managers or senior managers to ensure that the action they are taking is the expected one. This leads to delays in execution, frustration, and sense of disempowerment. In organisations that are focussed on improving performance, the context and why of the organisation are clearly understood. For example, at Zappos, the first principle is “Deliver WOW through service.”. This sets the tone for how staff make decisions – and staff are empowered to send replacement shoes, or stay on the phone with customers for as long as it takes to make the customer happy without having to defend their actions as long as they are in the service of Zappos’ core principles.

In their book “Extreme Ownership”, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin refer to this as Decentralized Command, something which is only achievable when people understand the context in which they operate. Staff understand their focus and the value of the work they are doing. I’ve recently been reviewing employee engagement survey feedback for a group of ~600 staff, and it is clear that there is always benefit in managers explaining the connection between the work that someone is doing and the overall objectives of the organisation – again, providing context.

When trying to understand what might be relevant to a member of your organisation who is looking for advice, or considering a career move, knowing their context is also vital. Listen, ask questions, and ensure we understand the needs of the individual before providing advice, and we are better positioned to provide something that is relevant and timely.

Finally, for now, I think we need to develop an understanding of our own, individual, why. David Allen, being interviewed by Tim Ferriss, described this as the topmost level of our horizons – the one that establishes our purpose in the world. To get to this requires a level of introspection that many of us struggle with, but it is the context from which all else flows.

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