Powerful questions are perennially important. When you keep returning to them to reflect on new meanings they reveal, you are rewarded with fresh insights that help you reimagine and reinvent what you do. Powerful questions help you reframe your thinking, and transform the value you create for the people you serve.
What Business are you in?
"What business are you in?" For successful leaders, reflecting on Peter Drucker's famous powerful question is a perennial exercise. As the environment shape-shifts and evolves, they know they must ask themselves in a fresh and new way what business they are in.
What about you? How do you answer this question today about what business you are in?
Most people start with their position, role or profession, or with what their company produces and how it helps customers. Although these are obvious aspects of your work, they are insufficient to revitalize your thinking about the business you are in.
For example, if you work at HP or EBay, your company is redefining its boundaries in ways that may cause your division to reposition its service and focus. If you work at an airline or an oil and gas company, the significant pressure on your ecosystem requires you to look at your company and service in new ways. If you work at Procter & Gamble or Microsoft, your company is going through a significant transformation that demands new ways of looking at problems and opportunities.
"What business are we in?" is a good place to start addressing your opportunities.
Here is how I propose you begin to address Drucker's question. As a professional, your first answer is that you are in the learning business. If you are not learning today, this week and this month, you risk staying behind. You fail your teams and your company when you do not impart the value you are capable of contributing.
Here is how Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky addressed this point in The New York Times interview with Adam Bryant: "The most important thing I've learned how to do is learn. I've had to embrace the fact that I'm constantly going to be in uncharted waters, and I'm constantly going to be doing something I've never done before. I had to learn to get comfortable in a role of ambiguity where I had to seek out advisers and learn quickly."
This is the CEO of a fast growing, disruptive company in the new sharing economy. His epiphany is that the most critical element of his work is to learn, and specifically how to learn faster.
This insight represents a profound shift in mindset. Most people go to work thinking they are paid for what they know. But when smart people get together around the table and focus on what they know instead of what they can learn, they often end up being defensive and creating collective stupidity instead of breakthrough innovation.
When you are in uncharted waters and the environment continues to shift around you, your business is learning as much as possible as quickly as you can. What used to be called the "knowledge economy" has evolved into the "learning economy."
In our work with senior teams to accelerate their growth and innovation, we attend to this critical shift from a "knowing" to a "learning" culture. The innovation and growth yield on this shift from an organization of "knowers" anchored in "Here is what I know" to one of "learners" characterized by "Here is what I am discovering and learning" is exponential.
"I am in the learning business" must be your first answer to Drucker's powerful question. Your second answer, especially if you are in a leadership role, is that you are in the people business. Even if you do not have people reporting to you, a big part of your work is conveying ideas and influencing others. As a manager, the most important and long-lasting contribution you make is developing and nurturing the people who will lead the organization into the future. You grow your business fastest, and you evolve as a leader in the most meaningful ways, by developing your people.
I propose that answering the question of "What business you are in?" begins with "I am in the learning business," continues with "I am in the people business," and ends by identifying your role, the segment of the market in which you are playing, and the value you are creating.
To develop and grow, you must invest in your learning skills and people skills. You must create an environment that encourages learning and fosters growth and development in the people around you. That's ultimately how you create a thriving and innovative workplace where people love to work and are happy to bring forward their best ideas.
Now it's your turn. Turn the key. Ask your team members what business they are in. Ask them what they are learning this week, and more specifically, what they have learned today about the learning business and the people business. Remind them they are not paid for what they know but for what they learn. Demonstrate your own learning frequently, and tell them you hold yourself and them accountable for fostering and sustaining a learning culture.
© Aviv Shahar