Never Let Organizational Culture Eat Up Your Strategy

Many years ago the late business management guru, Peter Drucker, purportedly said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

While there is still debate as to whether Drucker actually said the line or not, it was attributed to him by Mark Fields in 2006, and he later became the chief executive of the Ford Motor Company.

At the time Drucker probably made this statement there was a lot of talk about business strategy in the Ivy League business schools.

His point was well taken that you should never neglect culture.

However, as the authors Boris Groysberg, Jeremiah Lee, Jesse Price and J. Yo-Jud Cheng, of the recent Harvard Business Review article on The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture, point out, a strong organizational culture can be detrimental when misaligned with strategy.

Aligning Culture With Strategy

I don’t believe Drucker ever intended to mean that culture supplanted strategy.

I think he was trying to remind business leaders not to get too enamored with business strategy.

The key to making a successful organization work well is best achieved by clearly aligning your culture with your business strategy. It is not about one over the other. Culture and strategy should work in tandem for maximum effect.

From a recognition strategy perspective, I have always said that recognition is driven by the organizational culture and that recognition can help reinforce the desired cultural expectations.

I also encourage owners of recognition to get effective recognition practices and programs focused on reinforcing the targeted, strategic initiatives.

Think about how you can work on the culture at the same time as you are implementing your strategic plans.

Hopefully, you can see how I am an advocate of culture plus strategy for making recognition a powerful business tool.

The Problem with Culture

Culture is much more elusive and harder to manage than strategy.

A strategy is a long-term view of how a company will achieve their desired goals, gain targeted market share, meet shareholder expectations, and make a profit.

You need financial knowledge, decision-making skills, insightful analysis, design and development abilities, and foremost, good execution skills to implement the strategic goals.

All in all, strategic thinking is logical, left-brain kind of stuff and much easier to work around.

Culture, on the other hand, as the HBR authors highlight, is “anchored in unspoken behaviors, mindsets, and social patterns.” It appears to include some right-brain skill sets to understand and act upon.

The authors have identified eight cultural styles that fit into an integrated culture framework.

Their cultural styles, which are quite fascinating as you review them, consist of:

  • Caring: focused on relationships and mutual trust
  • Purpose: exemplified by idealism and altruism
  • Learning: characterized by exploration, expansiveness, and creativity
  • Enjoyment: expressed through fun and excitement
  • Results: characterized by achievement and winning
  • Authority: defined by strength, decisiveness, and boldness
  • Safety: defined by panning, caution, and preparedness
  • Order: focused on respect, structure, and shared norms

There is more here than most leaders ever want to assume responsibility for. So typically, culture is relegated to Human Resources, who have far too many other things on their plate to address.

Culture is not only a strategic issue but it is everyone’s responsibility.

Culture’s Impact on Your Company

How does culture ultimately impact the success of an organization?

The researchers provide insights from their research and practical experience on the effects of a positive culture on companies:

  1. Strong culture drives positive organizational outcomes. They note that the culture must be aligned with strategy and leadership to achieve positive results.
  2. Leader selection and development hinges on culture. Again, the culture has to be aligned with your strategy. Future leadership planning requires a forward-looking strategy and
  3. Use complimentary strengths when merging organizations. Best to design a new culture on the strengths of each organization being merged rather than create a new one in its entirety. The authors indicate this focus can speed up the change process and create more value over time.
  4. The importance of life-long learning. Organizations must be agile and invest in learning to stay ahead of a dynamic and uncertain environment. Your culture is ever evolving and learning can be a catalyst for this.
  5. Culture must always be aligned with strategy. Your culture and strategy must walk hand in hand and never one in front of the other. A strong but misaligned culture is when culture eats strategy for breakfast and can destroy the business.

There are several additional culture-related articles in this HBR issue on The Culture Factor, which I will personally be studying, and hope you can check out.

Reflective Question: How does your organization’s culture currently align with the business strategy and support employee recognition?

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