As someone who has lost loved ones more than once, I don't see obituaries as being surrounded by rainbows and sunshine. But writing one for your company, even in the midst of tremendous success, actually might be a surprisingly rosy thing to do.
That's according to author, company culture expert and CULTURE LABx co-founder Josh Levine. The exercise, he asserts, allows business leaders and teams to let go of the immediate fires that consume their day-to-day and see the bigger picture. And going through the same process at the same time fosters empathy, giving all voices the chance to be heard.
"The key question [leaders will] answer is 'why will you be remembered?'," says Levine. "The obituary forces leaders to look back at their company's entire existence at once. What becomes most important then? The goal of the obituary is to identify your purpose--why you are in business beyond making money."
And Levine is clear that you should find the purpose that's about the core of the business, not about a general investment in social good. This purpose should serve as your company's North Star and guide both big and small decisions. It shares why working at your business is about achieving something more together, and when you communicate it properly, it can help you find, keep and motivate great talent.
3 keys to writing your company's obituary well
Writing your company obituary shouldn't be something you piecemeal together during coffee breaks. It takes real cooperation and the right frame of mind, so Levine sees these ideas as essential to the process:
- "Do it together. Peers and leaders should do this at the same time, ideally in the same room.
- Let go of the immediate. This is about the biggest of big ideas, so don't get down in the mundane. 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.
- Write it out [in traditional prose]. Bulleted lists don't work. Often the key pieces of the obituary are in how ideas are phrased--[ask everyone to identify the words, concepts or phrases that were most compelling, the things that stood out or gave them goosebumps]. Write big on poster-sized paper so everyone can see. If working on this remotely, shared docs can suffice."
How to complete the exercise, step by step
If you're not sure how to logistically get the obituary done, here's how Levine breaks the exercise up as a workshop.
- "Split workshop participants into three or four teams [of 2 to 5 people].
- 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. (30-45 minutes)
- Ask each team to make final edits and then transpose their entire obituary by hand onto the large sticky pad. (30 minutes)
- Invite one person from each team to read back the obituary. (20 minutes)
- [Pass] out dot stickers. [Have each person] 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. (15 minutes)
- Ask one person to tally up the votes and mark the words and phrases that were most popular. (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? (30 minutes)"
As this breakdown shows, writing your company's obituary doesn't have to be a time killer--it's something you can finish in a single morning or afternoon. But the startling insights you get can verify or challenge everything you're doing, and it has the potential to inspire real change, more invested work and greater connection.
So let your company die already, at least for a few hours. If you don't like how you're remembered, it's far better to realize that now, before it's too late to bring the company back to life.