The celery test: Why misaligned organizational strategies can hinder growth

by Christopher Cook

Understanding why your organization does what it does can help improve your business strategy and development and better manage change.

You go to a conference where all types of people are giving you advice. One person says Reese’s is what your organization needs. Another says coconut water is the best decision their company ever made. Someone else speaks highly of Doritos, and the last person says celery is the greatest.

You go to the grocery store and spend an hour looking for items you learned about at the conference. Since you are a person of action, you want to implement these strategies immediately. You place them on the counter for the cashier to ring up.

Most likely, someone is waiting in line behind you. Imagine what he or she can gather about you from your purchases. You have an array of choices, some healthy and some not so much. Your message is convoluted.

Now, say you only buy celery and coconut water. Now, the message is clear you are health conscious. You spent less time and money at the grocery store plus delivered a clear message as to your WHY. While the other options are still available to you, you did not select them because that is not WHY you do something.

The junk food is the quick, short-term relief. Sure, Reese’s and Doritos are fine in moderation. It takes more work to rid your system of their effects, but small doses will not hurt anybody. However, if you make them a part of your marketing or organizational strategy, you are confusing everyone. Are you health conscious or not?

Not only knowing your WHY is important but also clearly stating your WHY is just as important.

Let’s take food out of the equation and enter a growing organization. This organization started out as a mom-and-pop remodeling company with only four employees. They put their signs out in the yards, put their names on a few billboards, and began working.

After a year of building a clientele and growing from four employees to eight, the owner decides to enter the service world. He sees the profits being greater, and the quick turnarounds on these small projects entice him.

He states, “No more big projects. They cause too much brain damage, and the money just is not there.” The owner hires three people to do the service work as well as one office employee to manage the scheduling and invoicing.

Six months pass. The service work is gearing up because the salesman is outperforming expectations. The company cannot hire fast enough. Things are looking up for this remodeling turned service company.

However, the owner signs on to perform the two biggest projects to date for the remodel side. A second story addition project and a whole home remodel. Do you see the confusion?

The WHAT of this organization is confused. The most basic element of any organization is WHAT you do. It should be explained easily. This organization is lost at the WHAT. Therefore, there is zero chance the WHY will ever be answered.

To relate this back to the food example, this person walked into the grocery store hell-bent on buying celery and coconut water but walked out with the Reeses and Doritos as well.

The celery test explained further in Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why, is designed to get organization’s thinking about their WHY to inspire. If WHAT your organization does and HOW it goes about business cannot be explained easily, then understanding WHY it does what it does will be unclear therefore it hinders the ability to inspire. Manipulation techniques such as raises have limited short-term impacts inspiration is the long-term motivator.

As a project manager, you may not have decision-making power in regards to the specific projects you manage, but you can take a look at the portfolio of projects your company takes on to see if it fits their mottos and policies. There should be a clear direction and alignment of projects.

If the owner is stating no more big projects and then inks two of the biggest projects the company has ever done, that is a red flag as to the thought process of the owner. He is not clear on any of the elements of the golden circle (WHAT, HOW, WHY).

Not only does this not pass the celery test but also creates confusion for leadership. How can someone be confident in starting to refocus the team when another seismic shift maybe months down the road? It is nearly impossible.

The celery test can be applied to any level of your organization and any person within the organization. The actions of whatever you are testing should align with the words or messages being delivered. If not, prepare yourself for manipulative techniques to hook you and your team to stay on board.

Celery is a negative calorie snack that is great for your health and the health of an organization. Use this test to see who really means what they are saying. Remember, actions speak louder than words.


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