Culture eats strategy for breakfast

What did Peter Drucker mean when he said this?

You can have the best strategy in the world, but without the right culture you will not be able to deliver it. Equally, if you have the right culture, it will help to ensure you have the right strategy. The role of leaders is not to be responsible solely for strategy, but also to take careful responsibility for culture.

What is culture?

An organisational culture is the way a group of people behave together. It happens quite naturally and very quickly in any group. Typically it is defined by the leading characters. For example, if the leading characters, including formal and informal leaders, are aggressive, critical, individual and unsupportive, it is highly likely that the culture will be too.

If you let a culture just evolve, you’ll get what you get – and you might not like it! Your job as a leader is to design, create and develop the culture you want in your business – and the one that best supports your strategy. In the heavy engineering industry for example, the culture that most naturally emerges by itself is quite masculine and individualistic. However these can be dangerous workplaces, and more forward thinking companies have realised that caring for each other is a critical component in making a risky operation safe. Rules and controls can only take safety so far. To go to the next level requires a culture of caring for each other – and this has to be consciously designed and managed into the organisation until it becomes ‘just the way we do things around here’.

Is the culture of your organisation appropriate to its needs?

Does your organisation’s culture need to be safer, more creative, more collaborative, or something else? What kind of culture would create the most effective environment for your organisation?

  • Safety requires everyone to take responsibility for doing the right thing, to really look out for each other and to look out for risks.
  • Creativity requires a culture which supports experimentation and encourages people to take risks with ideas.
  • Collaborative culture requires people to understand each others strengths and weaknesses and to be sufficiently engaged and humble to allow leadership to flow to where it is relevant.

Having identified the kind of culture that is most likely to work, the next step is to identify the values and behaviours that are likely to encourage that culture (and the ones that are likely to discourage it), and then to communicate them.

How do you communicate a culture?

This is not just a question of a booklet or a poster, but of really helping people to understand through deep communication, where everyone gets the chance to discuss, internalise and own the values and behaviours.

Part of communicating the values is for the leaders (including the informal ones) to fully ‘be’ the values and behaviours. If any of the leaders finds it difficult to embody the values and behaviours they need to be supported (through coaching, mentoring etc) or they need to leave.

Communicating values and behaviours is not a one time thing. It also needs to be embedded in the systems of the organisation: the rewards and compensation structure, recognition and awards, reviews and feedback, marketing and communications as well as recruitment, on-boarding and training. There also need to be processes for discouraging behaviours that go against the values.

Isn’t this just a charter for conformity? I don’t want to be a clone!

How does all of this fit with authenticity and being true to yourself? Well, if an organisation’s culture is explicit, people can choose to be part of it, or not, depending on whether that culture aligns with their authenticity. If an organisation’s culture is not explicit, it is confusing and hard for people to tell if they want to be part of it. In the end our authenticity is much more likely to be compromised by a culture that is hidden and opaque than one which is clear and unambiguous.

That requires someone, or a group of people, to take on the challenge of surfacing, explicitly articulating and steering a desirable culture. The most effective and successful leaders, and the most successful and satisfying organisations, are the ones that take culture seriously.

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