What does it take to build something that lives beyond you?
The construction of the Duomo in Florence was a spectacular multigenerational project. It began as a vision in 1294, with the last bit of exterior marble in place by 1887, almost 593 years later. That's about 24 generations of popes, city officials, merchant patrons, architects and stone masons. I wandered though it five generations after that. The people who founded the project barely lived long enough to see the first stones laid. It is an enduring creation that's stood the test of time.
A human generation is about 25 years (the time it takes on average for someone to mature and begin replacing themselves with children). That means leadership of the Duomo design and build project required at least 24 leadership transitions, as one steward took up the mantle from the one before. Political regimes came and went. Battles were fought and won. Technologies, social mores and cultural standards evolved. But the project endured. Even Hitler had the good sense to leave it standing.
What concept is engaging enough to transfix every new wave of leaders and transcend the sometimes-violent upheavals of history?
It is unusual now for a business venture to make it even through the life of its founders. If we take the career of an entrepreneur as 25 years (plus or minus) then we also need to accept that within that span, the people enrolled in its growth will need to make signficant strategic pivots every four to six years just to keep up with customers and ahead of competitors. One generation of the organization represents four to six business cycles and four to six minor or major updates to the business model and system. That's a lot of change.
Think about where you were four to six years ago. The world today was largely unimaginable in the world before TikTok, COVID, the most agressive version of Vladamir Putin and the most humble version of Tom Cruise. Likewise the next four to six years will be just as unimaginable. If your vision is to build a firm hardy enough to last a metaphorcial hundred years, then you would need to figure out how to set it up to survive 4 generational turns and 16 to 24 significant "house" renovations.
What is the core of an idea capable of driving change at such a large scale and over long time frames?
It's helpful to remember that the 3M company began its life 120 years ago as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company. When my cousin Kim retired from running their massive website, they had over 300,000 SKUs (different products), most of which bore no physical resemblemence to anything the company made almost five generations ago, But they all have one concept in common. Innovation is the throughline, the theme of every 3M story. (Mine is impact.)
Every founder or group of founders has an origin story at the heart of its brand. At the core of the story is a single magnificent enduring theme like innovation or impact, which is the essence of its higher purpose and reason for being. A small set of supporting values are the basis of governing the business and stand as the vital attractors to all stakeholder groups. Successive generations transform these deeply emotional concepts into new business models and product offerings to stay current with an evolving cultural, social, technological and economic environment.
Every entrepreneurial person has the choice to start something entirely new or join in on scaling a going-concern to the next level. Even though established businesses have some baggage, they do have momentum, resources and credibility. Successors have the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of those who went before, improving the franchise and extending the reach of the value proposition. New leaders write the next chapter of the story. They recast and reimagine the plot and the arc of its characters, while preserving the underlying theme. This is their page to turn.