I regularly listen to a podcast by Seth Godin called Akimbo. One of the episodes earlier this year talked about origin stories and how they help a person understand where they came from and where they are going. The story we tell ourselves about our past dictates the choices that we make about the future. Furthermore, if we decide to change the story, a different future becomes possible. Seth discusses his own origin story about a sailing mishap on Lake Erie (a reason why I connected with the episode) and the power that we have to change the narrative after an event.
I recently used an origin story to help an executive team pivot towards a new strategy. The team acknowledged that they were at a crossroads and needed to refocus to realize their 5 year strategy.
The team had inherited an origin story from the company's past. While this story held positive messaging about the culture, how they built strong programs and their strong ties to stakeholders, the story bound them to repeat these patterns again. With the shift in strategy, the executive team needed to change direction but couldn't see how that was possible within the current narrative. The story they had been telling themselves was limiting their view of the future.
To help shift the thinking of the team, I told them a new origin story. This new story acknowledged their past strengths. It emphasized that to grow, and bring positive change to even more people, they would have to focus on achieving a new level of organizational maturity. Similar to a startup growing over many years to achieve global status, their company was changing.
The origin story was a powerful tool to help the executive team understand how their past linked them to their future. They were able to see how the change in direction would set them up for success. By changing the story, we were able to set the company on a new course.
Beyond the executive team table, an origin story is useful for developing change communications for staff, managers, stakeholders and customers. It quickly gets to the "why" of a change and helps rally support and momentum. It maintains that the work and contributions of the past are important, and it links to the future in a meaningful way. A new story enables progress towards a desired state.