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Systemic Reflection: What’s in a name?

Recently, I have had the pleasure to run several workshops on systemic concepts, for a variety of startups and corporates.

One thing that came up during these sessions was the importance of the name of a company (from a systemic perspective), and the relationship to its origin.

At the start of one of the workshops, we asked the participants to explain the names of their companies. In some cases, there was a simple explanation, but in others, the explanation was a passionate story and it was clear that the name had a deep meaning, and in a way, a systemic charge.

Understanding the name is a good starting point to explore and identify the elements of the origin of a company and it’s first idea. Other questions – aimed at the founder(s) – that help explore are:

  • What personal experience triggered setting up your company?
  • What promises were made, when the company was set up, and to whom?
  • Who suggested you should start up, and why?
  • Who in your family is, in a way, involved? And who are you paying tribute to, by starting up this company?
  • Who came up with the idea, and if that was not the founder, how did the founder obtain permission to execute?

For us systemic folks, origin is a very important concept. It can predict the leading principles of the company and the patterns the company will adopt. It is often a rich source of energy and motivation for the people involved. It implicitly attracts employees and investors. In a way, it is the seed of the purpose of the company.

But origin can also become an obstacle, when at some point the company is required to change or pivot – as they say in the case of startups. Sometimes a pivot makes sense when looking at the business model, but for some reason the founder feels the urge to resist, which in turn frustrates those who are pushing for the pivot. The cause of resistance might be that the pivot is in conflict with (elements of) the origin of the company.

This may sound obvious, but because startups, and older companies too, are fully focused on the (near) future, they do not really have a deep and explicit understanding of their origin. All the more reason to explore it!

In another session, in Johannesburg, one of the participants had set up her company about a year ago. She had used the name of the farm of her parents in Zimbabwe, which was seized years ago by the local authorities (probably not in a fair and decent way) and had now ceased to exist. It was clear that this name has a deep meaning for her. The origin of her company is in a way a gesture and tribute to her ancestors and it is the re-birth of a company that had not reached its final destination yet.

Thanks to Barbara Hoogenboom, some of the content of this post comes from her.

More systemic reflections to come. Comments are welcome. Watch this space!