Why Employees Should Write Their Company's Obituary
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because as Carl Sagan once put it, “If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”
By Sean Braswell
Death can be a tremendous motivator, especially when one manages to live past it. When the Swedish dynamite inventor and arms manufacturer Alfred Nobel was mistakenly pronounced dead by a French newspaper in April 1888 (it was his brother who had died), the sight of his own obituary — proclaiming that the “merchant of death is dead” — prompted Nobel to reevaluate his legacy and attach his name to something a bit more obituary-friendly than explosives: illustrious prizes for those behind humankind’s highest achievements.
But it’s not only people like Alfred Nobel who can benefit from being pronounced dead before their time. Companies and organizations that are struggling with their sense of purpose or with creating a healthy culture can also learn a lot about themselves and their purpose from an untimely death. How? By enlisting their employees to write the company’s obituary.
The value of the obituary is that it gives people permission to let go of the moment.
Josh Levine, author of Great Mondays
People who rate their company’s culture poorly are more likely to switch jobs. According to a 2017 Hays report, in a survey of 2,000 employees, 47 percent of those employees actively looking for new positions claim that company culture is the main reason. And a large part of that cultural dissatisfaction stems from a sense that we aren’t engaged in meaningful work. “Most of us leave the best parts of ourselves at home because we think that what we’re doing at work isn’t actually worth that much,” says Mark Stevenson, a futurist and author of An Optimist’s Tour of the Future. He says that increasing employee satisfaction is not about more benefits or perks, it’s about purpose.
What is purpose? Traditionally, according to everyone from economists like Milton Friedman to the world’s most renowned MBA programs, it was mainly about the bottom line. But with workers today searching for more meaning in the workplace, that definition is expanding. In his book Great Mondays, company culture expert Josh Levine defines purpose as, for example, “why an organization exists beyond making money.” And that can be derived by asking the timeless existential question: “Why am I here?”
Why should a company involve itself with the kind of soul-searching generally reserved for philosophy courses and self-help gurus? Identifying a compelling purpose, says Levine, not only helps attract and retain talented employees but also energizes a company’s leaders and gives them the type of direction that will lead to better decisions. The trouble is that if your organization is not the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it might be a bit challenging to figure out your core purpose beyond making money. And this is where a well-timed, if premature, company obituary comes in.
Writing a good company obituary, says Levine, is about stepping back and thinking about how your company will be remembered. He suggests a team exercise in which a group of eight to 12 colleagues break into groups and each group comes up with three to five paragraphs memorializing their company, noting its accomplishments and impact on the world. The groups then share the obituaries and identify the most compelling words and phrases with the ultimate goal of crafting a short statement of purpose that is fewer than 25 words and begins with an infinitive verb. OZY’s mission statement, for example, is “to help curious people see the world more broadly and more boldly.”
The obituary forces us to look at things from a new perspective. “The value of the obituary,” says Levine, “is that it gives people permission to let go of the moment, the quarter, the year, and think 25 years in the future.” At its best, a great company obituary is a glimpse into the future that will “slap them in the face and say, ‘Look, let’s get clear about why you are doing this, why you wake up in the morning.’”
To be sure, a well-crafted obituary, or even a clear statement of purpose, is no panacea when it comes to building a healthier company culture in which employees can thrive and find meaning. “It’s still just an idea, you haven’t activated it,” says Levine. “But it is a powerful starting point.”