Why Every Company Should Write Its Own Obituary
Why work? The reasonable response might once have been “to make money,” and for some that’s still true. But as our economy has evolved and work options have proliferated, the answer has changed for a growing majority of people. These days, many of us want more than just a paycheck.
To find, keep, and motivate great talent, businesses leaders must identify and share with the world why working at their organization is about achieving something more, together. That’s your company’s purpose, the a grand vision of why your organization exists beyond making money.
Why don’t more companies get clear about why they are in business? Because of the nearly inescapable gravity of traditional economic theory. Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s quote, “You can’t live if you don’t eat, but you don’t live to eat. And neither does business exist primarily to make a profit. It exists to fulfill its purpose, whatever that might be,” was uttered in protest of the conservative economist Milton Friedman’s famous proclamation, “There is one and only one social responsibility of business — to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game.”
Unfortunately, many business leaders still think like Friedman, and it’s easy to see there is no role for purpose in this ancient worldview. Don’t fall for it. Companies that short the circuitry of modern business by skipping the employee are doomed to customer backlash and long-term failure.
Answering the Big Questions
Convinced purpose is important? You aren’t home free yet. During the past decade of doing this work, I’ve found the biggest challenge nearly every executive team must face is internal: It’s their inability to let go of the most immediate and pressing parts of the business.
I get it. Rolling out the new product update and hitting quarterly financial goals are important. It can be scary to put that work down for even a day. But finding a company’s purpose isn’t about this quarter, or even this year; it requires taking the long view. Imagining what doesn’t exist is hard, but that’s exactly what you must do to discover your purpose because it’s your future.
How might the world be different because of your company? Step back and ask your team, “Why does this company matter? Why will it be remembered?” I’m not asking for realism. We get enough of that. Instead, I’m asking you to think big. When you are attempting this work, my advice is to not get bogged down in the specifics. Go far, as fast as possible. To find your purpose you may need to go 25, 50, 100 years in the future.
Think you can’t do it? I disagree. This obituary exercise has helped many leadership teams stretch their brains in the right direction, and I’m certain it can help you, too.
Write Your Company’s Obituary
Why write an obituary for your organization? By imagining the organization is dead, leaders and executives who are usually consumed with the details are given permission to let go of the minutia. With day-to-day concerns out of the way, you have room to think bigger.
Here’s the overview: 25 years from now your company has ceased to operate. Don’t get bogged down in how it happened. That part doesn’t matter. What does matter is putting on paper why the company will be remembered. Answer in 3-5 short paragraphs questions like: What were your company’s greatest accomplishments? How did it change the world? By framing the obituary in this way, we don’t need to be concerned about the profitability, only the company’s impact.
Hint: Don’t let reality get in the way. Think bigger than you might be comfortable with. I’m giving you permission to write ridiculous, unlikely outcomes. I’ve been in the room with fintech executives who wrote about how their startup solved global poverty, with a biotech team that eradicated all disease, and an enterprise technology services group who determined they helped establish the first colony on Mars.
The value of this magical thinking is not in the ends, but in the words and phrases you and your team use to get there. Once you’ve written and presented your obituaries, ask everyone to identify the words, concepts, or phrases that were most compelling, the things that stood out or gave them goosebumps. Below are detailed instructions so you can get started with your team.
- Split workshop participants into three or four teams. No team should have more than five members.
- Instruct each team to work together to write the first draft of their obituary. They should end up with 3-5 short paragraphs that include only the most important details. Hint: Bulleted lists don’t work nearly as well as complete sentences. Don’t let anyone go that route. (Time: 30-45 minutes)
- Ask each team to make final edits and then transpose their entire obituary by hand onto the large sticky pad. Yes, they must write it out. And yes, they must put it up so everyone can see. (Time: 30 minutes)
- Invite one person from each team to read back the obituary. (Time: 20 minutes)
- Once all teams have presented, pass out the dot stickers. Each person will place the stickers next to the words and phrases they find most compelling or relevant. Each person gets 6-8 dots and can vote on anything, including their own obituary. You can even put multiple dots on one idea if it seems particularly important. (Time: 15 minutes)
- Once everyone has used all their stickers, ask one person to tally up the votes and mark the words and phrases that were most popular. (Time: 10 minutes)
- As a group, discuss what you notice and what it might mean for the purpose of the organization. Talk about what got the most votes and why. Look for patterns. Are there any common themes? What stands out? What was expected or unexpected? (Time: 30 minutes)
What is your organization’s reason for being? Finding your company’s purpose isn’t going to make work easier, but it will provide more clarity to help leaders make hard decisions, more meaning to help employees do their jobs with more energy, and more value to help customers choose your brand more often.
Josh Levine is the author of Great Mondays: How to Design a Company Culture Employees Love. He is best known as the cofounder of the nonprofit CULTURE LABx.