sonja blignaut on company culture and stories

episode 39 of the human current has been a game changer for me. the interview is with sonja blignaut from more beyond and the way she explained some of the work she does has definitively leveled up my thinking about stories and also culture. in some ways, nothing she said was new. but, like most good innovation (in my mind), she combined some elements in a new way and in a new context that made something new and excellent.

the short version is this: part of her work is helping groups and orgs shift their culture. she has a critique of most culture change work and it basically that when you ask direct questions about the culture in a place, you get shallow answers. the answers may or may not be accurate, but in both cases, the answers aren’t helpful for making change (imo, this is because culture is an emergent property - it isn’t a “thing” outside of the phenomena generated by interactions).

so instead, her firm collects “micronarratives” from a place. lots of them. those micronarratives allow people from all vantage points in the org to see the culture. then, after the group has identified what they want the culture to be like, the actions needed are the ones that will create fewer stories like the ones that currently exist and more stories like the ones the group wants.

so that’s the idea. and i especially like this line:

“Stories create culture and culture creates stories.” — sonja blignaut

i’m already applying this thinking in a couple of different contexts and it is proving quite useful in one and might soon prove useful in the other one. which is dope.

but the other big breakthrough i’m having just as i write this piece is that this is totally and deeply related to my personal storytelling for social change work. the workshop i’ve been testing out at the podcast garage is the beginning of the formalization of that work, but it’s happening in other places, too. and this whole angle about stories and culture has added another excellent dimension to my thinking. our culture, as a nation, as a species, IS the stories we tell. and so we need to figure out what stories we want to be more common and then start performing actions and behaviors that give us more of the stories we want.


extended quote (from the episode transcript)

Sonja: ​So one of the things that I’ve really become very aware of and I find it’s one of the most powerful things to introduce organizations to as well is this idea that culture emerges from the stories that we tell and basically it emerges from - as I said in the previous answer as well - from the various interactions that we have with others and with the environment. But sometimes when we just ask people direct questions or we ask them for opinions, we only get a surface level response. So if we take the old iceberg metaphor, if we really want to get below the surface of what’s really going on in an organization, the best way to do that is to tap into that ever evolving conversation and gathering lots and lots of every day what we call micro narratives or observations from across the organization. There are so many stories circulating in any organization at any given moment. It’s the typical stories around the water cooler and outside on the smoker’s balcony. Culture spreads in an organization but also the way that it’s maintained and the way that we can actually start understanding it.

So what we try to do is to get people to describe the system and not evaluate it. So in a normal and a typical survey tool, we would ask people evaluative questions about the culture. We want them to describe it and once we’ve got this richly described landscape made up of stories then we’re able to evolve the system forward in actually quite a simple way but also in a fractal way. If we have got stories that come from all over the organization then we can ask a very simple question to decision makers across the entire organization and basically the question we ask is, what do you need to do differently from tomorrow to get fewer observations like these ones that are holding us back and more like these ones that are taking us forward in a direction that we want to go into? And that is a question that someone on board level can understand as well as somebody on the shop floor and what I really like about it is it allows the entire company to evolve the culture in a coherent direction but then with local autonomy in terms of how they do it. And I think the other thing that’s really great about this is it’s “ungamable” because the only way that I can get people to tell different stories, they need to have different experiences or they need to observe different things and for that to happen you have to have actually changed something. In complexity we can’t predict the future so to try and design a culture for a future that might never actually happen wastes a lot of energy and it breeds disappointment and cynicism in an organization. So we focus on using narratives to match the current disposition of the system. Where are we now? Where are the opportunities, the evolutionary potential in the present? And then we evolve forward from there.

words / writing / post-processing
394w / 11min / 10min