Has anyone ever said to you, “The ends justify the means”? And then you said, either out loud or to yourself, “Oh no, they do not!”
We often use “The ends justify the means” as a “thought-terminating cliché,” hoping that, by saying it, we can stop any further discussion. We say it to mean, in effect, “the goal or outcome is what matters, so it doesn’t matter how we get there.”
But that isn’t always true, is it? Usually for one of three reasons:
- You don’t agree on the “ends” — the outcome
- You don’t agree on the “means” — the approach
And the one we just don’t talk about:
- You don’t agree on the “justify” — the reasoning
And yet the best way to get someone invested in your idea is to make sure they understand and agree with all three.
The problem? We don’t usually do that.
Now, you might be saying, “Well, Tamsen, not me,” but let me ask you:
- Have you ever presented or pitched an idea and focused almost entirely on the means, on your approach? Have you presented your idea without the context of the “ends,” on the outcome or your “why” behind it?
- Have you ever done the opposite—where you focused almost entirely on the outcomes or benefits your approach would deliver?
- Have you ever presented either the means or the ends, or both, without articulating a justification for why and how your means deliver those ends?
Then I would argue, that—even if completely unintentionally—you did say “the ends justify the means….” You just used a lot more words.
So let’s dig deeper.
The “ends” are the end result. The outcome. Generally, if people disagree that an outcome is worth the effort, then the means don’t matter. There’s nothing to justify because everyone doesn’t care equally about the outcome. In that case, the means are—pretty much by definition—purposeless.
For example, one of my startup clients helps local and regional leaders protect their communities from coastal flooding. That’s a pretty clear “end,” and one that most leaders in coastal communities would agree is valuable. Landlocked leaders? Not so much. But by establishing the “ends,” my client quickly and clearly establishes who they are, and aren’t, for.
So yes, that’s why you want to make sure people understand what you’re working toward and why. Internally, that helps make sure everyone’s pulling in the same direction, and externally, it helps your audiences determine very quickly whether or not you’re relevant to them. You also likely have opportunities to find further alignment in the means.
The “means” are the approach. They’re how you achieve an outcome. They’re the activities you undertake and usually include what you do—your products, programs, positions, etc. The client I mentioned above, for example, uses solar-powered and wifi-connected sensors, along with a customizable dashboard to help their customers protect communities from flooding. Together, those two create a more conceptual description of their means: that they “democratize data.” (So yes, you can have both literal and conceptual versions of your means.)
It’s typically through your “means” that you and your audiences interact. So, yeah, they’re essential, because the means are often what your audiences, constituents, and customers look for (or at!) first. But focusing solely on your means is one of the most common, and damaging, mistakes in messaging and communication. That’s especially true when your “means” look a lot like others’ do (think: commodity products and services like real estate or electrical supplies or pervasive topics like leadership and culture). That’s where articulating the means can often—but not always—save you.
Between two companies that sell winter coats, for example, I’m personally more likely to buy from the company that designs its coats to be recycled (like Patagonia) than from one where that’s not an option because it’s not part of their purpose or mission. When it comes to experts, I’m much more likely to follow one creating new knowledge rather than one simply synthesizing what others say (even if they do it better than most).
There’s another reason the means are important: it’s in the means that most disagreements, or misalignments, arise. The main two US political parties, for instance, may agree on the “ends” of what they do, especially if stated something like “ensure the current and future stability and success of America.” They don’t, however, often agree on the means to get there.
The “justify” piece is your reasoning. It’s why you choose those particular means to achieve your ends. And I have to admit: it’s the “justify” piece that I’m particularly passionate about, not in the least because it’s so rare for people to do it all, or do it well.
So often we assume that people will agree with our means because we (also) assume they agree with our ends. That also means we assume we don’t need to justify or explain our reasoning about anything.
That’s a lot of assumptions. First, assuming that people agree with either or both means and ends runs you right into a particularly perilous trap: consensus bias. Also known as the “false consensus effect” (emphasis on “false”!), it’s where you think your “own behavioral choices and judgments as relatively common and appropriate to existing circumstances.”
In other words, because you think your ends justify your means, you assume other people do, too. But they very likely don’t, which makes it very dangerous to assume they do.
That’s one of the primary reasons I suggest that some version of your message should always include the audience Goal, the outcome your audience is looking for. It makes sure that you not only filter out those who aren’t interested in the “ends” your “means” deliver, but also “removes the neutral position” for those that do.
It’s also why I suggest the minimum viable version of your message should also include some aspect of your approach—your means—to achieving those ends.
But hear me on this: those two alone are not enough. Sure, with some audiences they are. With people whose worldview or values you already know, you could probably skip the level-setting that defining your terms provides. Personally, even with audiences I’m “sure” of, I like to eliminate as many opportunities for misunderstanding—or disagreement, silent or otherwise—as possible.
Both misunderstanding and disagreement are fatal to motivating people to your message. But misalignment is also fatal to your message, and that’s where the “justify” piece comes into play. Based on what that justification is, and how well you can articulate it, it’s in “justify” that three things can happen:
- You make the people who already agreed with your means and ends feel even better about that agreement (and that makes people feel smart, capable, and good—always a good thing).
- You confirm the decision of those that don’t agree with you (which makes them feel smart, capable, and good).
- You give those that are undecided enough information to commit one way or another.
I’d say all three are pretty good outcomes, which just adds to the reasons we all need to pay a lot more attention to the “justify” part.
But what does it mean to “justify”? What exactly are people agreeing or disagreeing with? Well, remember that “justification” is your reasoning. Your justification is the argument for your idea. It’s the story you tell yourself, consciously or not, about why you think those ends do, in fact, justify those means. That argument is based on principles you believe about how the world works, or how you believe it should work.
The problem? That “story” happened pre-consciously, without you even realizing it. What’s more, once your brain reached the story’s end (“use these means!”), it pretty much dumped how it got there. What’s left is usually just the beginning and end of the story: the ends and the means, and your assumptions that the two together will automatically make sense to anyone else, simply because they make sense to you (which they likely won’t).
Case in point: did you get tripped up a bit when I explained that my example client’s sensors and dashboard “democratize data”? Yeah, I did, too. Because “democratizing data” means something to the company and its founders, they assumed it would make sense to anyone else that heard it. But it didn’t, so it was hard for their prospective clients to truly understand why my client’s approach was one they needed, even though they agreed with the ends.
For someone to believe in your idea, they need to believe in all parts of it—the means, the ends, and the justification that connects the two. That’s why, if you really want to make sure someone has what they need to become invested in your idea (literally or figuratively), you need to go back and excavate the “why” behind your “how,” to reconstruct the “justify” that connects your means and ends together.
Specifically, you need to figure out the elements of the argument you used, even unconsciously, to get there: the principles you followed in coming up with your answer.
Pushing further with my client, we discovered they define “democratized data,” as “data people can actually use.” That’s absolutely an improvement—it makes more intuitive sense to someone who doesn’t know anything about the company. That said, it’s (a) still open to a lot of interpretation and (b) doesn’t explain why the sensors and dashboards are the right or better answer.
For that, we had to dig deeper still, to the principles behind why they developed sensors and dashboards the way they did, how they embodied “democratizing data,” and how all of that connected to a better way of protecting communities from flooding.
What I uncovered was that, to them, “data people can actually use” had two parts: actionable data and actionable insights or interpretations of that data.
I’m guessing you’re getting pretty good at spotting what could be better about that: “actionable” is also pretty open to interpretation and it still doesn’t explain why or how their dashboards or sensors are different. Also, how does that connect to their means?
So we kept digging until we got to two working versions of those principles:
- Danger is different (to different communities). Because of that, this company believes that “actionable data” is data that can be customized to different communities’ needs. That’s why their sensors and dashboards can be fully customized to deliver the hyperlocal information a community and its leaders need.
- Understanding precedes action. Because of that, this company believes that for data to be actionable, it has to be interpreted, and that varies person-to-person. That’s why their dashboards present data in ways that align with different levels of expertise or understanding.
Together those two are why their ends (protect communities from future flooding) justify their particular means (a – data customized to different communities’ needs, via sensors and the data they collect, and b – interpreted in alignment with different levels of understanding, via their customizable dashboards).
Two things that aren’t elements of this kind of essential argument? Features and benefits. Now, you already knew that features and benefits alone don’t make a case, but now you know why:
Benefits are just variations on the “ends” and features are just variations on the “means.” When you focus on features and benefits you’re still leaving out the “justify.” And no matter what you plug in as your ends and means, one doesn’t justify the other just because you say so!
A decoding device
Used well, “the ends justify the means,” can be an incredibly useful tool—just maybe not in the way you might have thought. Instead of using it as a thought-terminating cliché, use it to test the strength of your thinking.
How? Each word of the phrase—ends, justify, means—represents what your audience needs to understand and agree with in order to get invested in your idea: the outcome, the approach, and the reasoning that connects the two. Because of that, you can use each word of the phrase to check whether or not (a) your message has all three parts and (b) whether or not you’ve articulated them in a way that your audience would understand and agree with.
In other words, the next time you say “the ends justify the means,”—or its equivalent—make sure you’re giving your audience enough information to agree.For someone to believe in your idea, they need to believe in all parts of it—the means, the ends, and the justification that connects the two. Click To Tweet
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