Tuesday, February 1, 2011

First-Order Questions (Going a Little Cosmic)

There's a well-tread logic for thinking about how best to organize and operate a business, one that's appeared in a million business plans and PPT decks.

It all starts with Vision, or--awkwardly translated--what you wish the world in which you operate would look like.  I'd call this the first-order question when launching an enterprise.  Vision is the currency of entrepreneurs, the thing in which they presumably revel (though we know better).

Next comes Mission, or the fundamental purpose of your business--why you bother to exist. That's a very important question but still second-order, after Vision.  (And yes, me too. I always get Vision and Mission confused.)

Then, Strategy, or deciding where and how to compete.  That's a question of the third-order type.

And finally comes Operating Tactics, resulting in a bunch of goals, metrics, programs and an annual budget, which is all about fourth-order questions: How will we go to market in that segment?  How do we take 15% out of our product this year?  When do we make the next point release available?  Stuff like that.

I suppose there are a series of questions after that--what paper stock should business cards be printed on, should we have a company summer outing--that could be classified as fifth-order questions, but hopefully I'm expressing the uber-logic clearly.

In fact, common wisdom holds that disaster awaits those who start with anything but Vision and work their way methodically to Operating Tactics.  Successful businesses are built from first-order to fifth-order, in that order.

I was thinking about this particular hierarchy the other day when I read an interview with Brian Greene about his new book, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos."

In a very sober way, Greene posits that there may be multiple universes.  He says, "Our most refined cosmological theories indicate, for instance, that the big bang, which created our own universe, may not have been a unique event. There may have been (and may still be) various big bangs at far-flung locations, each one creating its own universe. Our "everything" may be just one enormous expanding bubble in a gigantic cosmic bubble bath of universes." 

It makes you think of that universe-in-a-marble-in-a-bag-of-marbles at the end of Men in Black, no?  Makes your head hurt, too.

Going a Little Cosmic

If success in business is the result of responding well to a set of cascading questions in an linear, orderly fashion, could Life work the same way?

In other words, is there such a thing as a first-order question for Life, in the same way that Vision must answer the first-order question in organizing a business?  Something that's so fundamental that if we don't answer it everything else could be noise? 

I would suggest there is, and it might go something like:  What is the totality of reality?  That's not "Why am I here," or What is "here," but more like Why is "here" here?

It is the most daunting of all questions, and right about now you'll want to be sitting with other people in a well-lit room.

Perhaps a series of second-order questions might be: Why am I here?  What happens when I'm no longer here?  And, if you want to depart from the secular, Is there a God?  

I'll be the first to admit that if there IS a God, then we may have answered the first-order question too.  But not necessarily.  For example, getting to Heaven might be great, but WHY are we getting to Heaven?  And, you'd have to know if God is subject to any constraints and if even he knows why "here" is here.  

It's kind of like Isaac Asimov's famous question about whether God has to follow his own road rules.  Asimov wondered, assuming nothing can exceed the speed of light, if God isn't fully aware of the mess we have made of our world and is returning as quickly as he can--though it turns out He was just a LONG way off tending to His other Creation when we started messing up?
Following this little thought-mess we've created, then, a series of possible third-order questions about Life could be: When did the universe start and when does it end?  Is space curved and how many universes are there?  And, how does it all work--in other words, is there a Theory of Everything? 
It seems to me that only here--roughly in the "Strategy" level of Life--do we have any real chance of coming up with some answers.  And it's a pretty slim one, and not for those of us with average IQs.  Before this point, however, we're kind of running on faith and hope and decoder rings.

Then, we get to some fourth-order questions, something we can actually wrap our heads around (though still not easily): What's a good life, and how do I live one?  (There's a recent interesting article here from legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin on the topic.) 

Fifth-order Life questions might finally be things we talk about at the dinner table: What do I do for my career?  Should I launch a business?  How many kids might we want to have?

And then, our sixth-order questions become: What should I have for lunch?  How do I lose 5 pounds?  Do I get a blue rollerball or a black ballpoint for my next pen?

And this, of course, is where we spend almost ALL of our time.

So, let's compare:

First-Order (must have)
“Why is “here” here?
Second-Order (critical)
Why am I here?
Third-Order (essential)
Is there a "Theory of Everything" and how do we apply it?
Operating Tactics
What’s a “good life” and how do I live it?
Summer outing anyone?
What career should I choose?
Beef or fish?
What should I have for lunch?

It's kind of enlightening to know that, in Life, we have no real chance of answering the “must have” first-order question, we leave the “critical” second-order questions to philosophers and clerics, and we hope that brilliant physicists and mathematicians are working on the “essential” third-order questions.

Most of us only really start being able to sort things out in the morning with fourth-order questions, the “operating tactics” level.  Then, we spend some of our time at the fifth level (summer outing anyone?), and much of our time at the sixth level (beef or fish?). 

Which, if we were running a business would be an absolute, unfundable, chaotic disaster.

But, in Life anyway, answers to fouth-, fifth-, and sixth-order questions are the best we’ve got.  

Which means, on those days when your business rocks but your life is a mess, it really does all makes sense. . .


  1. Katherine sent this great link: http://www.bigquestionsonline.com/columns/michael-shermer/the-biggest-big-question-of-all. With more snow on the way for New England tomorrow, the BIG question is. . .water in the family room from an ice dam, or cave-in of the roof?

  2. Finally, an answer to the question: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2011/02/siseneg.html