Strategy vs Culture

What’s more important strategy or culture? It’s a debate that has been rattling around for many years and interestingly, there is relevance to both sides of the argument, although I think inevitably, one trumps the other.

Strategy can be defined as how a company goes about achieving its goals, it’s game plan; the main reason for the existence of strategy is to achieve end goals. Culture is the environment in which strategy achieves those end goals. It is a general framework that provides guidance for actions to be taken, and at the same time, is shaped by the actions taken. The two are intertwined and interdependent. But culture is less about what a company wants to achieve and more about who the company is. Culture is about how you do things.

So why does so much discussion transpire about which is more important? Surely both are just as important and need the same amount of care and attention? In a perfect world, yes. In reality, the business world is much more segmented. Different people have different priorities and interests. Depending on their positions, some leaders prioritise strategy and some prioritise culture as the most important ingredient to the organisation’s overall success.

Much to the delight of many management consultants, management guru Peter Drucker supposedly famously said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Drucker believed that an organisation’s corporate culture normally thwarts any attempt to create or implement any strategy that is not compatible with it’s culture.

On the other hand, The 1985 book Organizational Culture and Leadership by Edgar H. Schein argues that “culture constrains strategy,”and goes on to suggest that “a company must analyse its culture and learn to manage within its boundaries or, if necessary, change it”.

In both these points of view, it can be agreed that corporate culture is exceptionally influential on the success of businesses strategy. It has to be seen as being, at the very least, as being equally important as strategy. In fact, strategy arguably, cannot succeed without a culture that supports it. With this in mind, understanding and shaping a corporate culture is essential to the success of business goals. Leaders need to invest significant time, energy and financial resources into creating the right cultural ‘fit’ for the success of their strategic objectives.

The first step to shaping a healthy culture is examining your current culture

Creating a thriving, healthy corporate culture where every employee is performing to their personal best is not something that can happen overnight. It’s a long process, and one that requires leaders to first get a thorough understanding of their current culture and shine light on it’s current failings.

In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown hijacks the saying “mind the gap” to illustrate and remind us of the link between culture and strategy. The “gap” being the space between where we currently are, and where we want to go. Brown believes the gap is defined by the following statement; “we can’t give people what we don’t have. Who we are (culture)matters immeasurably more than what we know or what we want to achieve (strategy).”

Brown goes on to suggests an organisation can reveal a lot about it’s culture by answering the following set of ten questions; which not only helps leaders understand the culture better, but defines the ‘gap’ between the “what we say” and “what we do”. The questions themselves are quite involved and quite confrontational but well worth spending some time brainstorming the answers as a way of giving your corporate business a cultural health check. What behaviours are rewarded? Punished?  

  1. Where and how are people actually spending their resources (time, money, attention)?
  2. What rules and expectations are following, enforced and ignored?
  3. Do people feel safe and supported talking about how they feel and asking for what they need?
  4. What are the ‘sacred cows’? Who is most likely to tip them? Who stands the cows back up?
  5. What stories are legend and what values do they convey?
  6. What happens when someone fails, disappoints or makes a mistake?
  7. How is vulnerability (uncertainty, risk, emotional exposure) perceived?
  8. How prevalent are shame and blame and how are they showing up?
  9. What’s the collective tolerance for discomfort? Is the discomfort of learning, trying new things and giving and receiving feedback normalised, or is there a high premium put on comfort (and how does that look)?

Only by facing these truths can we start to gain insight into the strengths and weaknesses of our organisational culture as it currently stands. Understanding it is the crucial first step to making authentic and significant changes to develop a much better culture with a much narrower ‘gap’. Having a winning strategy is futile without having a culture that encourages and supports the game plan. Drucker was indeed onto something when he allegedly coined the phrase “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

If you would like to organise a tailored leadership workshop with me this year or in 2020 get in touch today. I’d love to help!

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