Strategy and Culture

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Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ (or ‘for lunch’, depending on which version of the often-repeated phrase one prefers). Usually attributed as a verbal quote by Peter Drucker (the evidence is from secondary sources), this phrase is used by some to assert the dominant influence of culture over strategy, and hence to explain why strategies can fail (and sometimes even as justification for why they think strategic planning is a waste of time!).

The thinking behind this is that it is the established patterns of relationships and ’ways of doing things’ that most influence people’s attitudes and behaviours in an organisation, and that whilst the messages of a strategic plan might be understood and its rationale and intent acknowledged, ultimately (when the individual or organisation is under pressure, for instance) it will be the tried and tested patterns that people will revert to in deciding how to behave or act.

Culture is, then, a powerful influence on what happens in an organisation. It is easy to see how such an invisible magnetic field can attract people back to well-worn patterns even when a rational and accepted strategy sets a different path. No wonder that ‘Culture eats strategy’ has such credence.

However, an effective strategic plan takes account of the organisation’s culture. Indeed, it is developed in the knowledge of the organisation’s culture. Returning to our journey analogy, those planning and setting out together on a journey do so aware of what they know about the relationships and dynamics within the group, and how this might affect their journey. Along the way they will discover more, as difficulties are encountered and decisions made, and as they learn more from the many conversations. It is an element of leadership of the journey that this learning will shape how to approach future stages, and at times there might be decisions made to change the way in which the journey continues.

A strategy journey considers the organisation’s culture, its values and its purpose. At the deepest most elemental level an organisation’s strategy is about how it sees itself (or more accurately, how the people in the organisation perceive it and how they relate to it) and how it defines its future. Inherent in this is what is the purpose of the organisation, what it sees as its role and mission to achieve, why it exists, what are the values that will guide its actions, and the principles by which it will operate. We have seen how powerful is the need for people to make sense of their situation: their relationship with their organisation, how they see their role within the organisation and their social interaction with others in the organisation all contribute to this, and to how they see themselves and define their identity. Culture is the ‘magnetic field’ that shapes the patterns of relationships and paths within the organisation; strategy is the evolving story the organisation tells itself to explain what it is and where it is heading, and how people in the organisation make sense of this.

So strategy is about culture. It is about understanding and articulating the organisation’s purpose, its values, and determining the principles by which it will operate consistent with these. During the course of a strategy journey an organisation might realise that there were issues with its current culture that it needed to address, or that the organisation’s values needed restating and reinforcing; such initiatives become a part of the strategic plan. Or it might be that such concerns were part of the context prompting the organisation to undertake a strategy journey, so it could work out what its values should be and how to establish these. Culture does not eat an effective strategy for supper or any other meal; instead they set off together on the organisation’s strategy journey as people work out what new paths they might need to take.

 

Excerpt from Chapter 8, Strategy Journeys – a guide to effective strategic planning (David Booth, Routledge 2017)

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