Before getting into this, let me point you in the direction of the always-worthwhile Bread & Jam Festival, where I’m speaking in a couple of weeks.
If you’re going to be in London and fancy swinging by I have a 20% off discount with your name on it right here: www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/243627625787/?discount=BASIC20
Now on with the business at hand…
They say that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.
This is a little ditty most of us have probably heard, and on the face of it there’s much to agree with there. The reasons it’s true include:
- You need a strong culture to execute a strategy. A great strategy in an organisation which is a cultural basket case would be like the proverbial throwing of seed onto stony ground. It will never take root and blossom into what it should be.
- Conversely, a strong culture can deliver results in the absence of strategy. As I’ve said many times before, strategy is not essential for success (as many big but dumb brands have proven), and this is partially because a strong but unstrategic culture can blindly grope its way to effective solutions through sheer graft and positivity.
Thus, because of the two above factors, if we were offered a choice of either a good strategy OR a good culture, then yes, we would be wise to pick the latter.
As with so many truisms there is a secondary layer of subtlety sitting below it, which most of us fail to notice thanks to the power of the statement. In the case of “culture eating strategy for breakfast”, that subtlety is this:
Strategy can (and should) create culture.
Yes, paradoxically whilst you need culture to execute strategy, you may also find that you need strategy to create culture.
The reason for this this is simple. A proper strategy should have a unifying and galvanising effect on a business; two crucial factors in culture creation.
- It should give people a shared sense of direction, which binds them together into a cohesive and purposeful unit
- And it should also be exciting and motivating, getting them “pumped up” and in a positive frame of mind
In the very best cases, the top level business strategy will also determine the type of person who the business should hire, and how the business should approach training, development, and general working policies (Patagonia, Zappos, and Netflix are all famous examples of this).
Don’t get me wrong, great cultures can emerge organically, in the absence of strategy (although we might say that such cultures are inherently fragile if there’s no deliberateness about them). However the strongest situation to be in is where the culture is a reflection of the strategy. Where it falls out of it.
You see, when things are properly ordered there is nothing above strategy in a business – nothing – not even culture. It is the logos, if you like. The word, the thought, the idea, that precedes action and matter.
This doesn’t mean you can’t post-rationalise the strategy. Indeed I’d say most good strategies are post-rationalised to some extent. It just means that all things must come into line beneath it.
Consequently, if you’ve ever found yourself in a “good strategy / bad culture” scenario, then I’d be inclined to question whether the strategy was, in fact, “good”.
Because if we’re being technical about it, that situation shouldn’t ever really exist. Culture should only be able to eat bad strategy for breakfast. Good strategy, far from being eaten by culture, should nurture it.