One of my favorite questions to ask is “for what purpose?” There are so many good ideas out in the world! As a leader, whenever a member of my staff would come to me with an idea, I would listen eagerly and get caught up in the excitement. We would begin to make plans for implementation of the idea, bring other people into the conversation, allocate resources, and move pretty far toward completion in that initial conversation. Then I would go home, get a good night’s sleep, and realize the next morning that as great as the idea was, I was fuzzy on how it ultimately served our purpose.
Over the years, this experience repeated itself so many times that it caused me to start a new habit. Now, when someone approaches me with a brilliant idea, I stop them before the juices get flowing and ask, “for what purpose?” If they can answer it immediately and show me how it fits within the overall purpose of the company, we proceed. If not, we stop the conversation right there.
Asking this question has a variety of benefits. For one thing, it keeps our purpose front and center. Businesses rarely fail because they don’t know what their purpose is. They can fail because they get sidetracked from their purpose by doing other things. My husband and I own a pizza franchise in Colorado—Tilford’s Wood Fired Pizza. It started as a food truck. We have a wood fired oven in the back and we make great pizza. That’s our purpose—to provide great-tasting pizza in a festive atmosphere. Somewhere along the line, one of the staff suggested that we start offering salads for people who can’t eat gluten, or dairy, or just don’t want pizza. It sounded like a great idea.
However, we did not ask “for what purpose?” We got excited strategizing how we could provide salads in a cup, layering the vegetables so that the patron could just flip it over and eat it on the go. We crunched costs and ordered supplies. We put salads on the menu with great excitement and anticipation. We included them in all our marketing and invested a significant amount of money in plastic forks, cups with lids, and dressing packets. We were off to the races with salads!
About a month into the new offering, I noticed something very disturbing. Our pizza truck operated on a very well-defined system. We prided ourselves on being able to turn out a pizza in under 10 minutes, from ordering to eating. One Saturday at a very busy festival, where we had a long line of patrons waiting to order, our wait times started to get longer and longer. When I investigated, it was because whenever someone ordered a salad, we had to stop our efficient system, pull the pre-made salad cups out of a different refrigeration unit, get the dressing and silverware, put it on a different counter, and then resume tossing dough and topping pizzas. It only took an additional 15-30 seconds, but when you multiply that by 10 orders, our wait times for pizzas increased from 10 minutes to 15 minutes.
We also noticed that the refrigeration space that the salad cups took meant that we couldn’t carry as much cheese, pepperoni, or other toppings on the truck. We would run out of the ingredients to make pizzas, but we would have salad cups left over that didn’t sell. We ended up turning away customers because we were out of stock on pizzas while throwing away salads.
Clearly, this was a great idea that didn’t help us fulfill our purpose. It sounded like such a wonderful idea at the time, but we quickly learned that we are most successful when we do one thing and do it well. We let the salad truck do the salads, and we went back to providing our pizzas. We found that no one missed them.
The next time you get a great idea, ask the question, “for what purpose?” Does this idea really fit in with your primary reason for existing? Will it further your purpose? If you aren’t sure, don’t go forward. The right idea will be both exciting AND move you toward your purpose.