Right organizational culture is a source of strength in storytelling


A lot has been spoken about culture already. Culture as we know gets deeply ingrained with time. That is why we have deep seated and rich cultures evolving from ancient civilizations that still exist around the world today. Within those pockets of evolved civilizations, culture creates ways of behaving, feeling, thinking, believing, which in turn instills pride and unity that result in notable performance within. However, culture has the tendency to shut-out its population from rest of the world. It makes the story-teller’s work even harder to bring stories from these cultural pockets to the outside, or take stories from outside these pockets to the inside of these pockets.

In a similar way, culture in an organization, like that in a team, function, division or corporation, can instill pride, unity and can favorably impact performance, if nurtured right. But when it comes to collaboration across boundaries, it becomes a barrier. With the accelerating trend of globalization, it has become an imperative to know how to build a corporate culture or a teaming culture that is inclusive of all global cultures. It becomes even more significant to know how to craft enterprise-wide stories for global consumption, with a universal appeal. But often in the business world, culture takes a backseat, because it is hard to measure, monitor and enhance readily.

What is this fuzzy “culture thing,” really?

An organization’s culture is…its self-sustaining patterns of behaving, feeling, thinking, and believing – that determine “how we do things around here.” Self-sustaining, because culture has inertia – without a really strong and persistent force, it won’t change its course. Patterns, because it is ingrained, repetitive elements that make up culture. Feeling, thinking and believing, because the emotional as well as the rational side matter. Behaving, because what people feel, think and believe is reflected in – and shaped by – their daily behaviors.

It has been observed that culture correlates with performance of an organization. Culture is a potential “asset” of all organizations of different kinds and shapes. It develops whether intended or unintended, actively directed, or left to happenstance. At its best, culture can be an asset that enables, energizes, and enhances human behavior – and when wisely utilized, it can accelerate and sustain favorable results. At its worst, culture can be a drag on productivity and emotional commitment. It can lead to underperformance and undermine long-term success.

We know that an existing culture in an organization can be a powerful source of energy if utilized right. Often the existing culture is the outcome of good intentions and so it is rarely “all bad.” However, the existing culture does not only reflect into the performance of the organization, but also into the story and how it is told, as well. All the energy, feelings, beliefs, thoughts and behaviors creep into the storytelling. Often, inadvertently, the story gets rejected by some cultures outside the organization’s immediate physical boundary. It is critical to note that a story told by one group of producers, will be very different from the story told by another group of producers from another culture.

The good news is that, an organization’s culture can be consciously steered and influenced to either enhance the impact it has on performance or reduce the resistance to the stories crafted for a global audience. A coherent strategy needs to be developed, that is well aligned with organization (structure, responsibilities, decisions, measures, process, systems, etc.) and with the right culture (behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, values, style, approach, symbols, etc.). At the same time, it has to be noted that, depending on the size of the organizations, getting at culture is hard – and many traps must be avoided. Here are some realities to keep in mind:

  1. Culture is rarely the only “villain,” though it is often a “partial conspirator.”

  2. Cultural evolution cannot be delegated to HR and forgotten.

  3. It takes a lot more than having an intuitive CEO, to lead the evolution of cultural.

  4. Cultural shifts take time.

For storytellers, even if your organizational culture is where you want it to be, you have to think in terms of how it influences the craft of storytelling you use on your stories. It will seep into the offerings you have for your customers. The culture of the audience for your stories does matter. Make sure that in the way you put together the narrative, nothing can turn your intended audience off. It might be in the beats of the story or other elements including the theme, the settings, the jokes, the story-world, the language, the belief-system, etc. Make a checklist that you can use when you converge on your story, craft how you tell it, how you produce it, how you go-to-market with it, where you screen it and how you screen it. If done right, it can make a significant difference in making your craft of storytelling appeal to a universal audience.

The one example that really exemplifies the possibilities, is the movie “Slum-dog Millionaire.” As you might already know, it was based on an Indian story from a novel by an Indian author, Vikas Swarup. The screenplay was written by Simon Beaufoy from UK. The screenplay was directed into a movie by Danny Boyle from UK. The actors were all of Indian origin. The movie was mostly shot in India. But the story was screened globally with great success. The team had to be well disciplined about the universal appeal of every element of storytelling to pull it off successfully. Not just by having the inclusive culture within the team, but also by having a profound understanding of what constitutes the storytelling with universal appeal.

In such cases, the critical behaviors that are essential fall into 5 categories:

  1. Leadership effectiveness: includes how managers achieve optimal performance from the teams; set standards/norms for the team; motivate peak performance; role-model right behavior; use mistakes as teaching moments.

  2. Decision making: includes the ‘ground-rules’ (formal and informal) for how decisions are made and who makes them; set the tone for authoritarian vs. consensus-based decision making; establish approval norms.

  3. Relationships: includes how employees will relate to each other; methods for working across business units; how to collaborate in ad-hoc and permanent team.

  4. Information sharing: includes how information is shared, both among peers and hierarchically; casual hallway chats to share ideas; providing direct and indirect feedback to peers.

  5. Work execution: includes how employees act in performing daily tasks on the job; always looking for continuous improvement; completion of tasks on time; honoring rules and guidelines.

For each relevant cultural priority, the current cultural behavior realities must be identified and translated into future aspirations of behavior. Once these culture priorities to address, behavioral aspirations, and implicit behaviors are identified, a tailored evolution program can be developed with interventions, measures, observations, monitoring, and adjustments.

All this might sound nebulous, but remember that culture is a potential “asset” for the organization and can be consciously steered and influenced to either enhance the impact it has on performance or reduce the resistance it can have for storytelling across cultural boundaries.

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