Creating a counternarrative
For many months the dominant business narrative has been COVID-19. This novel and frightening emergence has upended most playbooks and left organizations scrambling and reacting. While from a health standpoint it’s important to follow guidelines prescribed by experts, from a business standpoint how might organizations shape their own narratives rather than reacting to the same script as everyone else?
I recently spoke with Aaron Bergman, CEO and Co-Founder of Golfinity in Austin, Texas. Like all founders, Aaron has experienced first-hand the struggles that come with building and maintaining any organization. Last fall, a three-year slog reached a major milestone, with the funding of a new custom-built facility for their indoor golf instruction operation. Shovels went into the dirt, with a schedule to open in the fall of 2020. Then, along with the rest of the global economy, COVID-19 rocked Aaron’s world.
The day Aaron’s team learned they would be forced to shut down their operation, a meeting request showed up in his inbox. A team member wanted to discuss their COVID-19 response. Aaron could feel panic and fear in the employee’s request. While he understood the risks the virus posed to his people’s health and business viability, Aaron didn’t like the idea of the virus dictating the rules.
A long-time consultant and mentor of Aaron’s instilled in him years ago that a productive team should be focused on solving problems and finishing tasks. Aaron says among his team it is common to hear the questions, “What’s the solve? Who owns it? When will it be finished?” As he mulled what to do about this meeting request, an idea came to him out of the blue. He decided to create an imaginary place with the perspective that there is an optimal solution for every problem. He generated this brief manifesto:
"There’s a place that exists where all circumstances create opportunity. Where struggle is synonymous with growth. Where creativity and ideas flow through the air and fill everyone’s lungs as they breathe. In this place no one has time for excuses, or the time to put anyone down. Here, you recharge through collaboration and together fight to the finish line every day. Here, you celebrate the wins and the people who helped you get there. In this place the focus is on attitude and effort, because in this place, the results take care of themselves.
Welcome to Solve City”
After the message had been digested by the team and followed by initial back-and-forth, people were asked to send in a picture of their workspace, aka their “Solve Station”. There were a number of so-called rah-rah activities and celebrations that took place over the next week or so, but Aaron knew the energy wouldn’t sustain itself forever.
Carrying the city metaphor forward, he decided it was time for the town to develop infrastructure. Aaron assumed the title of Mayor and another person began identifying all the different parcels to develop (aka projects to be done). Different teams became various municipal-themed departments and leaders were appointed to the Town Council. Mirroring the local newspaper, they even created the Solve City Statesmen, where important updates could be distributed and accomplishments - or “Wins” as they say in Solve City - could be celebrated.
Since Aaron and his team are suspended from serving their clients for a period of unknown length, he set out to keep them focused on manageable tasks. Each week individuals and teams identify which parcels they would develop by end-of-week, aka Finishville. Then he turned back to his mantra, “What are you solving this week? Are you going to finish it?” The check-ins at week’s beginning and week’s end marked a way for people to identify what they were taking ownership of rather than panicking about or reacting to.
Like every town, Solve City has faced struggles here and there but Aaron says it has taught him a lot and restored his team’s faith and sense of control over their world. Each week he visits the organization’s new facility, which is currently under construction. Through a video posted to Solve City, he highlights progress, talks about struggles overcome in the past and recognizes team accomplishments through “Shout outs”.
While Solve City may not be the metaphor that best represents your organization, the important lesson to take from this is the way Aaron created a counternarrative to the one that the pandemic has thrust upon us. Solve City works for Aaron’s team because they are a group of committed solvers and finishers. His counternarrative has augmented their culture and values and provided clarity that every organization needs if they are to prosper under the new demands of today’s circumstances.
It is too easy for the lock-down to lock-up the creativity and enthusiasm necessary to rise above survival and toward prosperity. Just as Aaron did, a counternarrative re-positions your mission in this new environment and gives your people the perspective from which they can invest in the company and their own security. What is the narrative that is flowing through your company? What is your Solve City?