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Monday, December 08, 2008

Your Organization’s Anniversary: Looking Both Ways

My friend Bruce Weindruch can look in two directions simultaneously. He can keep one eye on the future while the other looks at the past. In fact, he built a successful global business called The History Factory on the odd premise that your organization’s past can define its future if you let its future define its past. Absolutely brilliant! Now, what does it mean?

Consider this scene. The CEO drops by your office to volunteer you to head up the organization’s 25th anniversary in two years. You muffle a gag. Two to twenty-five sounds like a prison sentence. You hardly have time to plan two weeks ahead and you’re at least 25 days behind in your work.

You graciously accept. Yes, indeed, welcome to another opportunity.

So, go get some green tea and I’ll explain how to apply Bruce Weindruch’s two-way formula.

It’s simple: start your anniversary assignment with the future and work backwards, not the other way around. The future-back approach converts your history into strategy. The “in the beginning...” approach can easily turn your history into an over-written, tedious story that ends the day before the future starts.

Employees, customers, shareholders, and others appreciate the past, but live for the future. Immerse them in the organization’s history but link it to the agenda that will affect their bottom lines tomorrow.

If you lay out your organization’s history chronologically, here’s what could result.

  • The story has gaps because, for example, your soft-spoken CEO, who is trying to leave his own mark, might want to trim coverage of his effervescent, ever-popular predecessor. That predecessor might, as well, want to trim the accolades of that ornery chief in the early 1990s who almost bankrupted the organization.
  • The story gets obese because the organization’s unofficial, self-appointed, invaluable and inviolable historian by reason of longevity, loyalty, and memory will feel that his day of redemption has come and will swamp you with minutia and endless oral stories – like I just did.
  • The story has no plot because the volume of written and visual materials is overwhelming and unwieldy. This assumes that you can find those materials in dingy warehouses and locked credenzas of organization lifers. Then you have to categorize all that stuff, most of which will never be used. Finally, you have to connect the dots to ascertain some meaning. Too much, way too much.

There is a much better way to think and end up with a much better product.

  • Get your CEO to tell you the organization’s history from the vantage point of five years from now.
    Set up two one-hour sessions with your senior leader. Prep him/her to think what the organization might look like in five years and then turn it into a story that looks back. Ask him to describe the future organization’s size, profitability, customer base, investor support, values, employee morale, and the like.

    Then, most important, have him tell you what factors made it that way. Was it sheer determination, pride, ingenuity, smart investments, customer loyalty, or something else? What changed over those five years and why? What, during that time, was consistent with the company’s history?

    With all of that information in hand, you can efficiently extract from the past only those facts, stories, and materials that substantiate future strategies, priorities, and values. This is not revisionism, it’s pragmatism.

    But why two sessions? In the first session, he/she will talk from the head about the strategic plan. After hearing himself in the first session, in the second, he will tell the same information as a story from the heart, which is what you want as a communicator.

  • Envision an orientation program for a multi-age group who has zero knowledge of the organization’s history.
    What will capture their imagination? A lecture-hall talk by a former executive on important historical milestones? Not likely. How about a multi-screen presentation featuring long-term employees extolling the organization’s promising future with examples of how employees made it happen in the past? That should do it.

  • Repeat three times to yourself: History brands the future.
    Use the anniversary event to revitalize the organization’s brand. You can choose to either a) fabricate an image from the outside in by what appeals to your publics or b) define the organization’s reputation from the inside out, substantiated by the past, and cleverly incorporate that into your brand. Choose “b.”

    I can hear Bruce saying that an organization's history substantiates the reputation that substantiates the image. He’s right.

Start your organization’s history project from the beginning and historians and curmudgeons will love it. Those constituents who need to be inspired to invest more of their lives in the future will yawn. So, move into the future and keep looking in your rear-view mirror.

Oh yeah, if you really want this project to be a milestone in your career, call Bruce Weindruch. He has lots of neat stories and ideas.

Illustration by: Jo McLure

My comments are based in part on a cover story I wrote for Communications World magazine: The Historical Future: Publicity through Feature Writing (copyright 1993, International Association of Business Communicators; copyright 2004, Gale Group).