Social Impact

Cultural Messiness

The inspiration of this post is from Seth Godin’s awesome article a few days ago – read it here.

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As part of the Acumen Fellowship, I got the unusual opportunity to spend time, not like a tourist, but in a real I-live-her way, in two Tier 3 cities of India – Bhopal and Ernakulam. I say unusual because I know that I would never have taken the time to do this, had it not been for this placement. And unless you spend a solid 3-4 months in a city, interacting with the locals, speaking their language, shopping and lunching with them, celebrating birthdays and farewells, you don’t get a real understanding of their desires and motivations. For the past seven months, I have tried to assimilate and understand parts of a culture that I felt familiar to, and alienated from, at the same time. There have been parts of it that have angered me and left me frustrated, especially as I try to traverse through the complex workings of an organization that is trying to do good, and sustain in the midst of many roadblocks.

From the time I started on my Acumen journey, the words “social enterprise” and “messiness” were used almost synonymous to each other. As someone new to this world, I wondered why. On a business level, a social enterprise needs to run similar to a regular for-profit venture. Right? Yes, there is an uncompromising focus on impact that is integrated into the business model, which means cost of goods and profit margins need to be re-calibrated accordingly. When we are working with the under-served, we are designing solutions to fulfill their basic needs- the must-haves, and not the nice-to-haves. But surely, this cannot be the full story. These are external customer-centric factors. What really is different about the internal workings of these kind of companies that makes them “messy” ? It wasn’t until I spent time with my colleagues in Bhopal that I really saw what I had never seen before, and what Seth has managed to articulate so much better than I can. It is culture – this culture of familiarity, safety, fear of change.

I am not saying that organizations in bigger cities do not struggle with this – but heightened hybridization in Tier 1 cities tend to make people look more favorably upon change. We have no choice but to accept that our favorite South Indian restaurant has also started serving North Indian food now. We willingly see Durga Puja being celebrated with as much fervor as Deepavali or Vishu or Eid. From cab drivers to roadside vendors to uber-cool startups, no one can escape it and therefore, we do what is innately human to us all – we adapt. This trickles down the entire ecosystem and impacts the way organizations are run – we work at a faster pace, we demand more of our employers, we move jobs if we feel our vision doesn’t align with that of our company.

Here is what I saw in Bhopal: The organization I worked for, was facing a severe cash flow problem which meant there were delays in salary payments to employees. These delays only kept getting worse with time. When I asked the employees what their plan was to combat this – most of them shrugged their shoulders and said – “what can we do, it is what it is.” You know what would have happened in Bangalore or Mumbai – the company would probably have 100 legal notices by now. Not even kidding.

When I was in Bhopal, my team comprised of smart, capable individuals who were not able to grow and contribute, because they were not given the opportunity, and they didn’t know how to ask. If you dig deeper, the reason for this could be traced back to their upbringing, family environment, expectations of what their life can be. What I saw was unfulfilled potential. Imagine if we were able to tap into this potential of 1.2 billion people – it would change the landscape of this country!

So here’s my little theory – social enterprises are messy, not only because their customers are harder to understand and design for. It is also because most such enterprises are proximate to their customers – in smaller towns and cities – which lack the ecosystem for change. There is a larger internal battle they face every day- which is, fighting the status quo of familiarity and fear of the unknown that exists within their organization itself. Knowing that what they are doing is bigger than themselves, and for that, they really have to show up differently. This is not a security blanket, a job to retire from 45 years later with a pension account.

As Seth says –

In the face of change, the critical questions that leaders must start with are, “Why did people come to work here today? What did they sign up for?”

So that’s where the real challenge begins for CEO’s and founders of social enterprises – sharing a completely believable vision of a new reality – not just externally, but also internally!

Talk about messiness !