A word on strategy and culture

April 26, 2012

A recent Fast Company piece, “Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch ” states “culture, like brand, is misunderstood and often discounted as a touchy-feely component of business that belongs to HR.”

I definitely held this opinion 10 years ago as a first-year MBA student. Why was Organizational Behavior a required class right along with Finance, Accounting and Economics? It sounded like baby stuff. As a second-year student, I still shook my head when every single executive I spoke to had the exact same answer to my favorite (ok, brown-noser) question. “Which business school class has been the most useful to you in your career?” Again and again, they said O.B.

A couple of jobs and companies later, I get it. What I learned in my very first O.B class (I ended up taking four of them) is true—culture can’t be manufactured; it’s not a policy that can be changed. It is a living, breathing, basically uncontrollable thing. I could write a long post about culture (and include something I read recently-- that the only way a CEO could ensure a change to corporate culture would be to fire everyone—including herself—on the exact same day!), but the point of this post is to address what I think is a shortfall of the aforementioned blog. How exactly does the black sheep of a brother named Culture best it’s smart, serious, successful brother, Strategy? I’ve got two good reasons.

How exactly does the black sheep of a brother named Culture best it’s smart, serious, successful brother, Strategy? I’ve got two good reasons.

1. Can you get there? Imagine your dream vacation is a month long solo trek in Bhutan. You get in shape, save the money and do all the paperwork to get into the country. Great. But you have a wife, kids, aging parents, your own business and a garden to tend. You have a vision and a plan, but your circumstances just don’t support you achieving it. Culture is what makes a good strategy achievable. It’s looking around. Can you really do what you want to do with your current staff and working environment? A strategic plan is just a piece of paper if it isn’t executable. The vision, the strategies and the company’s capabilities—resources as well as culture—must all align.

2. Connecting the dots. Companies with highly successful cultures are mobilized, energized and can get stuff done. A functional culture is motivated internally because people BELIEVE in what is going on (a strong culture easily weeds out non-believers). This is a competitive advantage. Management doesn’t have to spend time getting alignment on new initiatives—everyone already gets what the company is about and can connect the dots themselves without a heavy hand from management. Same with day-to-day work. There is no confusion about WHY; therefore, employees can focus on the WHAT. This allows managers more time to think big strategic thoughts (because they do less “bossing”). Employees can make better decisions and, one hopes, also have more fun doing it. Another trip analogy: when you don’t have to revisit the map every mile, it makes driving a lot more enjoyable and your car makes much better time.