Culture in Stories


I heard today of a large South African corporate that underwent a transformation. At a certain point in its history a new top-dog was appointed, and he decided, as the top-dogs are wont to do, to bark and bite most of the existing senior leaders out. This "old guard", also being well known in the organization as great tellers of stories (and in some cases, tall ones, but not the matter), duly left, tails between their legs.

Not long after, it was remarked, with a new guard in place (and this one, a less rambunctious lot when it came to spinning the old yarn), that the whole place seemed to have "lost its culture".

What is interesting is not that old leaders make way for new ones, or that different leaders have different styles, but that in this particular case something appeared to have been lost. Did the organization still have a culture? Certainly. Was it a different culture to what had previously been? Most likely. Then why the comment of "culture lost"? Could it have something to do with the fact that stories make the invisible culture of a place, somehow come alive? Could it be that the after-work-beer-mug, and the canteen-takeaway-polystyrene, and the water-cooler-paper-cup, and the pre-meeting-coffee-cup, and the one-on-one-what-do-you-think-of-the-new-product-collusion, also make great receptacles for culture transmission?

I sometimes think that we needlessly try to squash the grapevine and the rumour-mill and the corridor talk. These are in fact some of the most instantaneous and influential communication devices the modern corporation has yet invented. It is a risky market in which to trade, to be sure, but a risk we need to take to keep culture from being lost.

Don't kill the messenger.