Saturday, June 03, 2006

Scripting the Founding Myth

Every great undertaking has its founding myth: the abduction of Helen, the Long March, two guys in a garage…. The undertakings we are midwives for are usually more prosaic than the Trojan War, but their need for a founding myth is nearly as great.

For example, five years ago, we facilitated an event to launch the strategic change program of a United Nations agency focused on rural poverty. Though that project has ended, people at this agency still refer to ‘the spirit of Milan’ when they want their colleagues to display collegial behavior. Fifty people working with us for three days in Milan has become the founding myth of all subsequent cross-agency initiatives.

A year ago, we facilitated eighty people for three days in Edinburgh to bring together disparate leasing activities of a major bank. Now that they have a shared destiny, they continue to refer to our work together as the starting point of their new business. A single black & white board illustrating the final report out of this event is the first thing one sees on the wall when entering the headquarters of this new business line.

Anyone who has heard Frances describe the funeral of old-style industrial relations on a US military installation and the birth of a new collaborative culture in its place knows what our role is in scripting the founding myth.

For me, the difference between a good event and a great event hangs on two variables:
1. Were we as a krew firing on all cylinders? Did we create something we never imagined we were capable of?


2. Did the participants create their myth? Do they have a story to tell throughout the life of their undertaking. Be it a new business or merely a complex project.

And since my ambition is to deliver great events, time after time, I sometimes fall into the trap of trying to sell the founding-myth type of event when all that’s wanted is help in untangling a complex problem. The market may be pulling us to scale our work down (and this might event be the key to our survival, cf., Clayton Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma). For me, though, the motivation comes from trying to scale it up, from taking a run-of-the-mill merger and making its protagonists the actors in a new myth.