Culture vs. Strategy

there's a famous quote allegedly attributed to Peter Drucker that culture eats strategy for breakfast or something like that it implies you can set whatever course for your business you want but it will be your culture what your people believe and how they behave that determines what will get lived out in the work culture isn't inherently about workspaces and perks like comfy chairs and ping pong tables it's about the habits that people have formed how they make decisions and how they respond to challenges pressure and discomfort and what they believe is good or bad for success based on what's been incented rewarded reinforced and possibly even punished in their workplace culture is what you have when the majority in your workforce act out the same set of beliefs even if they're not the traits that are codified by your company and for precisely that reason culture can be a powerful force in an organization for better or worse as a result there's an ongoing debate about which is truly more important to deal with in a company trying to change its direction the strategy or the culture this culture eats strategy Maxim warns of culture interfering with or contradicting strategy which it certainly can but we must remember successful strategies enable business solvency which enables an organizational culture of some kind to exist at all in fact you might say that in ideal situations culture and strategy nurture each other in an ongoing cycle whether it remains a healthy cycle depends but let's just start by saying you get into the cycle by the business being relatively successful for some minimum amount of time how long that successor solvency continues is one of the primary factors that allows cultural behaviors and traditions to become ingrained and those habits are what can potentially lead to problems with new strategy sometime down the road so in an existing business desiring to change direction how do we reconcile culture and strategy can you just do the right strategic work focusing on the right business goals in order to end up with the right culture or a new culture or do you have to start by addressing the culture to make sure it allows the right business actions decisions and work to get done I have seen advice offered both ways many people advocate that if you just get the strategy correct and execute on it effectively that the right behaviors can't help but follow resulting overtime in the right culture this reasoning goes even if don't have the desired culture you can get it as a side effect of just getting your core business right and again this perspective is correct in that success makes having a culture possible it's what sustains culture and allows it to survive others take the opposite approach they advise focusing on culture first to make sure it enables and doesn't impede your new strategy in fact some would say culture is the actual enabler of the execution on any kind of strategy that strategy is lived out through the behaviors and actions since that is what culture most often influences so this perspective is also correct in that culture does matter often significantly at the same time each side also has a valid critique of the other exclusively focusing on culture can't be the end game the business strategy and executing on it is understandably the primary objective obviously a company culture can't exist if the company goes out of business so good strategy is clearly important but if culture becomes a powerful enough influence on the motivations of the workforce the culture can actually negatively impact an organization to the point of jeopardizing its solvency and its future and that's certainly worthy of being addressed seriously as well so what's the key to balancing these I think it's about discovering the organizational landscape figuring out first if the existing culture in your business is going to readily enable your strategy or not investigate what culture you really have remembering that who people are and what they truly believe are most revealed when uncomfortable or under pressure that honest analysis and evaluation is what will give you a clue if your culture will chew up and spit out your strategy and to that end this is ultimately the linchpin question to ask yourself about your culture can the culture be sustained by anything other than the successful execution of the strategy in other words will behaviors either be actively or passively permitted and rewarded for activity other than execution of the strategy if the answer is yes you're going to have a situation where culture can ignore or destroy strategy because it can be sustained and emboldened by something else you're going to have a climate for the behaviors of your workforce to conflict with or at least not contribute to achieving your strategy to put it bluntly make a cold can be fat and happy without needing to do that new thing it's not going to do it now I know that makes culture sound rather juvenile but generally individuals in the workforce are not trying to be they often just don't understand how to behave differently they don't know what it feels like to live in a different culture so let's consider how such a gap between culture and strategy can be reconciled my favorite metaphor to explain how culture and strategy functioned together comes from Tanner Bechtel he says strategy in my perspective is our journey it's what we aspire and conspire to complete it's a conscious choice in direction culture is the landscape a mile on pavement takes much less work gear in preparation than a mile through a mountain pass the terrain culture must be considered when planning our journey strategy and the realistic perspective must be applied when planning we wouldn't want to take off across the Andes in tennis shoes and shorts by understanding the terrain we can intelligently plan a successful journey now at this point some of you may say yeah I see it and I understand why I need to address it but others of you may say I'll consider my culture but not too much really I don't want to have to address my culture because honestly it's serving me well I like it the way it is hmm well so long as you don't like it more than staying in business this is indeed another common question worthy of confronting can you change a strategy or execute on new strategies without shifting your culture sure if your culture isn't the primary thing holding you back if it's a culture that enables your strategy and execution work if it's a terrain suitable for such a journey to borrow from Bechtel so ultimately resolving the strategy versus culture dilemma is about doing the hard work to figure out if the terrain that exists will either enable or prevent the right behaviors you need to map your terrain your culture find out what actually drives behaviors that lead to decisions and actions in your company and if you discover the wrong behaviors in your culture like the first step in any 12-step program you have to own it admit it as current state and then ask yourself what's sustaining it from what are those ways of behaving being propped up what allows them to live on and if that's your real issue perhaps it's time to confront your culture to make sure your workforce is schooled and scented fed and rewarded by the progress toward and achievement of your strategy and that in turn will begin to provide additional nutrition and momentum for your strategic journey ahead confronting people's beliefs and behaviors may be painful but in the end old habits being broken and retrained will prevent your shiny new strategy from being chewed up and spit out and that in turn will allow the opportunity for the new and healthy culture you need

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