Culture and strategy eat breakfast together

I am sure you have heard the phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Its worthy intention is to remind us that a strong culture is important to getting things done in organisations. We know that even with a great strategy, a destructive culture makes it really hard for people to do their jobs.

What the phrase misses is that strategy is just as important as culture. More than that, the two need to be closely aligned. Culture does determine people’s willingness to act on strategy. Even with a great culture however, if you don’t have a clear strategy, no-one knows what to do. Furthermore, without a clear strategy, you don’t know what the culture is supposed to achieve for the organisation. If culture determines how people act, before you can develop the culture, you need to know what actions are going to serve the strategy.

I think of culture and strategy enjoying breakfast together. Every day. That is why in my practice as a Collaboration Wrangler, I work with both culture and strategy to keep them well-aligned.

The idea that culture trumps strategy is often attributed to the late management thinker Peter Drucker. Perhaps it came at a time when we were at risk of over-estimating the impact of strategy. It would be tempting for me to adopt this as my catch cry. Most people can think of times when the culture in a team or organisation has made life miserable and stalled progress. Fewer people can point to repeatable approaches to improving culture. Even Drucker saw culture as singularly persistent. I do not have magic bullets but I do have training, methods and experience in this area. I enjoy working with people as they develop empathy and trust in their relationships. I find meaning in it.

But if a decent strategy is not in place, no amount of culture work will get you task accomplishment or participant satisfaction.

I think of strategy as an action plan with a rationale. It tells people what to do and why. A strategy should be clearly articulated and well-tested. It should address the interests of all stakeholders so that there is strong consensus in it. A well-developed strategy gives people confidence that if they implement their part of it, they and the others in the system will get the benefits they are seeking.

If the strategy is not well-developed, people don’t know what to do. They can’t contract or be held accountable for implementing their part in the strategy. You can’t assess whether their personal motivations are aligned with their part in the strategy.

Culture is not as easily defined or developed as strategy. One way that I think about culture is as readiness to act on the strategy. Thinking about culture in this way helps to focus on what is relevant to the organisation.

I’ll expand my definition by one step. Culture is an intangible property of a group of people that influences how people act in relation to each other in particular situations. Culture is itself influenced by the way people relate with each other. In this way, certain aspects of culture tend to gain momentum. Those aspects of culture that become typical give you a sense of the current culture. The aspects of a culture that I am interested in are those that affect how people get work done together – that have an impact on the organisation achieving its strategy. If an organisation makes software, I am interested in how people work together to make software.

Some organisations – and consultants – value activities such as playing golf or paintball together. They seem to assume that these are somehow relevant to freight or financial services. I look for a mutual participation in activities such as understanding the interests of customers, bringing multiple points of view to a problem, or helping each other out on specific tasks. The more I know about the strategy, the more fine-grained these investigations can be.

While strategy pertains to the formal functioning of an organisation, culture pertains to the informal functioning of an organisation. The formal organisation strictly, even legally mandates how we behave. In the informal organisation our behaviours are voluntary. If an organisation is going to achieve its goals, and generate benefits for its staff, customers, owners and other stakeholders, both its formal and informal functions need to support that.

My first step when working with an organisation is to make an assessment of the culture and the strategy. If the culture is more developed than the strategy, I’ll focus on strategy. If the strategy is more developed than the culture, I’ll focus on culture. If both are well-developed, let’s work on growing them even stronger, and more closely aligned with each other.

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