Just 1 Question...

Many years ago when I was applying to colleges, I was asked to answer this question: If you were told you had to leave your home in the next 5 minutes, never to return, what one thing would you take with you? It was and is an interesting question, and not just at the personal level if you were forced to leave your comfort zone. I was reminded of this question a year ago when the Thomas fire burned almost 300,000 acres in Southern California and did more than $2.2B in damage to homes and businesses, a memory that is newly fresh as we approach the anniversary of that natural disaster. The question resurfaced because of an article I saw at the time written by a journalist who had actually taken time away from the immediacy of the fire and all the firefighting to ask those fleeing, "What did you take with you?"

Just think about that for a moment. Literally and figuratively, firefighting is what dominates our thoughts and actions whenever we are caught off guard, challenged with new circumstances, or otherwise forced to face volatile, uncertain, complex, of ambiguous circumstances. So busy are we fighting change that we rarely pause to ask ourselves what we should take with us. In other words, what things do we need to carry forward from one set of conditions to the next as our status quo suddenly shifts to status whoa? It's not just a personal question. It's one every single organization today ought to be asking and making core to their strategy.


The Answer That Matters Most

It's interesting to look at what the Thomas fire evacuees took. At first it looks like a random hodgepodge of an aunt's teapot, cookbooks, a father's autographed baseball, an army helmet, and a worn whale vertebrae. But soon you realize it's not the things they took, instead it's the symbolism of something bigger imagination (the cookbooks and the teapot you used to pretend to be a grownup with), the possible (the baseball signed by one year's National League champions), courage (the helmet that once saved a young soldier), and faith in renewal (a whalebone found on the beach the day you scattered your mother's ashes in the sea. The point is, that when push came to shove, people instinctively reached for inherent tools and purpose that never changed, even if how they employed them did.

Much has been written about the importance of shared purpose to teams and groups. Whether or not that group runs an organization, pursues a cause, or seeks to change a market with a new product matters less. Why they do, and the clarity of why that purpose matters, to each of them and as a whole - that's the secret sauce no matter how often what they do and how changes or is forced to change.

When 104,067 people are forced to leave their homes, or 8,500 firefighters are mobilized to fight an unpredictable force, it's pretty easy to get lost in the seeming magnitude of the moment. But in life, in business, in general, moments come and go. When they do, only a few things remain unchanged. No matter who you are, what you do, who you lead, or where you're headed, it's pretty important that you figure out those things. It's the only way mankind has ever been able to control the fires around it.