Where Did We Come From? The Values in the Origin Narrative

Origin stories distill the core values of a company or a workgroup into a short, easily remembered and repeated narrative. These stories describe the group’s reason for existing. They consider a world before the group came into being. It was a poorer world or at least a world with problems that needed action. The group’s continued existence keeps those problems somewhat under control.

The origin story for Acadia University where I am a professor builds upon core values of religious freedom and community action. In the 1830s, Nova Scotia colleges were associated with the Catholic and Anglican churches; the Baptist church wanted an alternative that would allow students to remain true to their faith. The Baptist church leaders lacked money but they knew how to preach. They applied their talents to persuading the community around the tiny town of Wolfville to contribute labor and materials to building the first college building. The core message: a determined community can create something significant and long-lasting from their shared efforts and generosity.

The origin story conveys lessons about who or what makes things happen. The founder may be an individual genius (or a pair of geniuses as in Apple Computer) or, as in the Acadia story, a group of community-minded people. A limitation of the genius founder narrative is that it only empowers people who are convinced that they are geniuses. Only a few of the people who are essential to a company’s success would think of themselves as geniuses on the brink of creating the insight that will take the company through its current crisis. Many more members of the organization think of themselves as capable, community-minded people for whom the Acadia story would be more empowering. Its message would discourage anyone for passively waiting to be rescued. It is the community that makes things happen.

A glimpse of the power within origin stories is efforts that go into creating and perpetuating them. For example, an origin story was fabricated for ebay, describing its founder creating the site to further a collection of Pez dispensers. The story seemed more appealing than acknowledging the company emerged from a rational analysis of marketing opportunities. The invented story would nudge the company’s image closer to those iconic tech companies that started in garages. It was a valiant attempt to back-engineer scrappy initiative into an organizational culture.

The bottom line for workgroup resiliency is:

• Do group members know the origin narrative?

• Is the story a shared narrative among group members?

• Do they take its core values to heart?

• Does that narrative shape their approach to today’s challenges?

So, what is the origin narrative in your work world?

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