Just a little computer company appealing to the limbic system

July 24, 2013

Today the shareholders of Dell may have their vote on the offer from founder Michael Dell to take the company private delayed again.  Reports are that as many as 22% of shareholders hadn’t cast votes – in this deal, the equivalent of a No vote.  And Mr. Dell wants a Yes to (he believes) rescue the beleaguered computer maker by repositioning it as a supplier of data-center equipment and software and reducing its reliance on the flagging PC market.

Dell’s predicament came up indirectly during this TED talk by Simon Sinek in which he argues that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Mr. Sinek marvels at how Apple was able to make people comfortable buying phones and mp3’s from a “computer company while no one bought – can anyone even remember? – Dell’s mp3 players.

In the course of his presentation he described a “golden circle” of how people make decisions that is based on the brain’s neurology.   The “why you do it” is governed by the limbic system – the portion with no capacity for language but which controls motivation, loyalty, trust, and other emotions.  The “what you do” is processed by the neocortex – the portion responsible for higher functions such as motor commands, rational thought, and language.

The part of the brain that controls behavior does not control language.  People may be capable of understanding complex features and benefits, but it doesn’t drive behavior.  (See our own related thoughts on the topics of thinking subconsciously and gut decisions.)

One of Sinek’s points is that successful product pitches speak to the limbic and allow the neocortex to catch up with rationalizations based on the tangible things we say and do.

If Apple started with an appeal to the neocortex, it might go something like:

We make great computers. (WHAT)
They’re beautifully designed and simple to use. (HOW)
Would you like to buy one?  (WHY?)

Their actual appeal reverses the pitch and starts with the limbic

In everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo (WHY).
We achieve or express that by making products that are beautifully designed and simple to use (HOW).
It just so happens that they’re computers (WHAT).

Broadening his argument to the topic of hiring, he posits that you should hire people who believe what you believe, not just because they can do the job.  His example is one we ourselves recently used in The only thing he made fly was government money:  the race to achieve powered flight, between Samuel Langley and the Wright Brothers.

Langley was chasing fortune and glory and had the support of Harvard, The Smithsonian, The New York Times, Teddy Roosevelt, and government money to hire the best and brightest.  The Wright Brothers, in contrast, had to rely on the loyalty and support of people who believed in their dream.  Langley’s spectacular failure in the nation’s capital was much more well attended than the little-noted (at the time) success in Kitty Hawk, but Langley’s support – as well as his own motivation – evaporated once his “What” became a well-publicized object of scorn and derision.

The core of Sinek’s message ties all the way back to our first month of blogging almost 4 years ago, in Built to Flip or Built to Last:

Jim Collins, coauthor of Good to Great and Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (two of our favorite books in The Library in St. Pete), wrote in Fast Company of a former student’s experience with a venture capital firm.  This former student was told to “come back with an idea that you can do quickly and that you can take public or get acquired within 12-18 months.”  …

Imagine Hewlett and Packard sitting in their garage, sipping lattes, and saying to each other, “If we do this right, we can sell this thing off and cash out in 12 months.” …Or picture (Sam) Walton collecting a wheelbarrow full of cash from flipping his first store after 18 months, rather than building a company whose annual revenues now exceed $130 billion.  …

The problem Mr. Collin’s student encountered is actually two problems: the first is the reduced chance at success of the short-term approach; the second is the mismatch of goals and vision between entrepreneur and investor.  If these partnerships are like marriages, some are better to end after a couple of dates instead of after an exchange of vows.

Whether selling or hiring (or investing!), if you talk about what you believe, you will attract people who believe what you believe.  How you do What you do is the proof for Why you do it.

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