An article I wrote for the May launch of Austin Performance Magazine.
Every person, every organization, is engaged in asking its unique and very important question. Although people focus on mission statements, values, and goals, the thing to figure out is your question. Because your QUESTion is your quest.
The answer to that question evolves over time. Apple asks: how do we make delightful technology? (I am experiencing the delight with my recent purchase of an iPhone!) This is also the question Steve Jobs, Apple's (bootstrap) founder has asked. Their first answer 33 years ago was a wooden box that looked different than other build-you-own kits. Now it's an iPhone and iTunes. But it is all an answer to the same core question. The Virgin Group asks: how do we make life an adventure? All their companies, from Virgin Mobile, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Galactic are engaged in discovering the answer. Again, this is the very question Sir Richard Branson, Virgin's (bootstrap) founder, has asked all his life.
My QUESTion: how do people and organizations live their most fully expressed lives? More ambitiously, how do we understand the universe and make our way in it? This has resulted in many different answers over the years, but most recently, in the creation of various mental models. I use my models to help people and organizations on their path. I was not always aware of my question, but it has always been with me. Recently I had an old 6th grade friend contact me on facebook, and at first I didn't remember him. He reminded me I was the Bijoy that used to give people advice and help friends with all their problems. Universe, I shake my fist at you, my question has been there all along!! (thanks Bruce)
A simple equation has emerged in answer to my question: you + U = ?! You and the Universe in a dance, co-creating your life. The first challenge is to figure out who You are uniquely and what you're here to do by discovering your question. This turns out to be at once more simple and more complex than we might think. (Our July theme at Bootstrap Austin was "know thyself") Einstein discovered his first question in his teens - what's it like to ride a light beam? When he answered this question at the age of 27 (ten long years later!), he realized it was part of his larger life question: how does the universe work? Sometimes it takes a jolt to thrust you into your question. Stephen Hawking was a bright, but unmotivated physics student at Oxford. At the age of 21, he was diagnosed with ALS and given a two-year death sentence. This prompted him to get serious about his question: how did the universe begin? He's been pursuing it now for 46 years.
But discovering "You" is not enough. The Universe, or "U" constitutes the second (and much bigger!) part of the equation. While this has traditionally been the domain of philosophers, theologians and scientists, we should not shy away from the task of coming to our own understanding of it. A model I use is embodied by the yinyang - specifically seeing it as a diagram about time. Imagine traveling along the border, exploring two seeming opposites. As they circle around, each is explored to the exclusion of the other. After much iteration something new appears: the integration of the opposites! The universe seems to be doing this at every level. Physicists understand that two huge forces - dark energy and dark matter - are in a cosmic dance since the universe began. Dark energy pulls the universe apart, expanding it into space, while the dark matter holds galaxies together.
Being a part of it, we experience and explore these dualities as well. We might think of them in human terms: love/money, dependence/independence. Or in Einstein's case, he unified light from a particle/wave to photon; with e=mc2, he unified energy and matter. Google unified democratic free search with paid search by creating two search engines in one.
When we understand the universe, we can let it do its thing and engage with it. You wouldn't want to take over gravity - that's the universe's job! All the resources we need to come to our answers - the heavy lifting - are provided by the U. Be patient, something larger is unfolding and waiting to be revealed. It's especially important to keep this in mind when things don't go our way. When Einstein found himself sidelined for a professorship after completing his PhD, he got himself a job as a third-class patent officer. Not only did this give him ample time to ponder his question, but he examined a profusion of patents on clock-synchronization. What was the key insight that led to the theory of relativity? Two clocks cannot be synchronized and time is not absolute.
The starting point for this unfolding process and what is totally in our control is our question. This naturally leads us into the exploration of a duality and its integration.
Returning to business, the entire discussion usually revolves around business models. How do you take the various elements in the world, configure them in such a way that you're providing value to your customers? This is the integration. Most businesses don't know their model when they start. Southwest Airlines didn't know they were building a low-cost, point-to-point, Boeing-737 airline powered on love. It took ten years to figure it out and the same is true of Apple, Google, Microsoft, etc. - all unfolding in spacetime.
We can now see that a business model is nothing more than a temporary answer to the core question the company is asking itself. Getting attached to a particular business model is what ensures the quick demise of a business. The challenge for founders and leaders interested in building long-lived businesses that continue after their involvement, is to impart their question to the company.
The model I use for businesses to live their question and discover its manifold answers is bootstrap. But that's for another time. For now, I leave you with (what else!) a question: what is your QUESTion?