I couldn’t put my finger on what was missing in our work until these three things happened all at once: we dove deep into the process of redesigning our web site and brand identity, reviewed 2013 successes and failures, and started planning for 2014. Doing all of that work forced us to ask questions about who we are and what we believe in.

The final 2 months of 2013 presented a huge challenge to me. To us, as a team. We had a successful year with a lot of great clients but we needed to ask “Where are we headed for 2014? What do we want to accomplish?” That forced us to look at our goals, objectives, and even look at a higher level. You can’t set goals without knowing why you’re setting them—what are you actually looking to achieve? And I mean that in a “change the world” kind of way. Do we, as a company, matter? Does the work that we do make a difference?

But I was struggling to come up with any concrete goals. I had a vague idea that we wanted to continue on the same path that we were on for 2013, but that was it. I came to realize why this exercise was tearing me apart:

A goal in the absence of something bigger is simply arbitrary.

In order to be meaningful, our goals need to support who we are and what we stand for. They need to be an extension of why we exist. If you don’t know WHY you exist it will be very difficult to come up with any useful goals. Right then and there is when I felt exposed. I didn’t know why we existed, other than to carry on what we’d been doing.

So, we paused, we imagined, we planned, we thought (deeply) and figured out why we exist. (No, we’re not going to tell you quite yet–we’ll show you. Soon. We’ve got a new brand logo and web site design coming that we are REALLY excited about!)

And as soon as we did, all sorts of other interesting things fell into place. Suddenly, we had a Vision. And a Mission. Something that everyone on the team could sink their teeth into. A mission that moved us forward. That we could all look at every day and determine “Did my work today contribute to that overall mission?”

And as I wrote it all up, making plans for how we were going to execute on that vision and to live that mission, it hit me.

A goal in the absence of something bigger is simply arbitrary, and this doesn’t apply just to us. It applies to our clients, our peers, and even you, the person reading this now.

I know it doesn’t seem like much of an epiphany, but it’s important. How often do we (or our clients) put action ahead of reason? You know—listing requirements, coding, mocking up ideas, and generally jumping ahead into solutions before we even know what problem we’re trying to solve. It’s the same thing. That change in perspective made its way so deeply in to my brain that I immediately started using that as a framework for everything that we’re working on for our clients in 2014.

You can get by for awhile with just following a set of rules, doing things because you were told to do them or because they sound like good advice. But, without any guiding purpose, without an understanding of why those rules are in place, you won’t be set up for long term success. At some point, you will have to improvise, and you won’t know what to do next.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.— Antoine De Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

In order to get something done and done well, you need to explain and show WHY. WHY inspires people to carry on when it gets tough. WHY helps you get past the mundane details. WHY gets you through the times that aren’t so much fun.

The key for any initiative to have a lasting effect, to being sustainable and meaningful is to tie it to something bigger. Tie it to the WHY.

That’s what 2014 is about for us. It’ll be all about the WHY.