Peter Drucker is famously quoted as saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.  In general I agree.  I have seen organisations go to great lengths to develop a strategy only to see it fail in the quagmire of the corporate culture.  Others have made similar comments in other contexts.cultureeatsstrategy-442x3051

Prussian military strategist Helmut von Moltke the Elder wrote that “no plan survives contact with the enemy”.  In the context of these quotes you might think thay both men were ‘anti-strategy’ but this is not the case.  Rather, both men knew that people can behave in unexpected ways. This is how an organisation’s culture can eat it’s strategy.  Your strategic plan is unlikely to survive contact with your organsiational culture.

Thus any plan needs to be flexible and needs to account for human factors.  John Wimber put slightly different spin on the need for flexible planning when he said “planning is everything, the plan is nothing.”  Having a plan is essential, however slavishly following it when it’s not working will undermine it.  You need to be prepared to alter the plan while still working towards your greater goal.

Fundamentally strategy is about change.  If your organisation is on track and everything is working perfectly then you simply need to keep doing what you are doing; you don’t need a strategy.  An effective strategy is a plan to overcome a specific problem.  For example, in World War II, General MacArthur proposed a leapfrogging strategy to allow the US to take the war to the Japanese without having to engage with heavily defended island strongholds.

In his book “Good Strategy Bad Strategy; the difference and why it matters” Richard Rumelt discusses the kernel of good strategy; these are:

  • “A diagnosis that defines or explains the nature of the challenge.  A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the siutation as critical.”
  • “A guiding policy for dealing with the challenge.  This is an overall approach chosen to cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis.”
  • “A set of coherent actions that are designed to carry out the guiding policy.  These are steps that are coordinated with one another to work together in accomplishing the guiding policy.

If you need a strategy, you have a challenge you need to overcome.  This could be a problem your organisation faces, or it could be an opportunity you want to capitalise on.

The problem comes, as highlighted by Drucker, von Moltke and Wimber, is that you run the risk that your organisational culture will eat your strategy.  So, what to do?


The short answer is that you have to make your culture a key part of your strategy.  Using frameworks like Cynefinsense making (watch this video for a great overview) you can establish a strategy that has built in feedback loops.

This allows you to take an action, see what happens, and then strengthen or dampen the inital action based on the feedback.  Often, when implementing a strategy, we can fall into thinking that we can engineer an outcome.  But human beings tend resist being ‘engineered’ and most strategies require people to change in order to be effective(1).

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For example; in an organisation I was in a large restructure was undertaken to centralise IT to make it more efficient, remove duplication of effort and reduce cost.  The strategic intent was good.  In business units there were small IT teams that essentially did the same thing.  This change was implemented on high and done quickly.  I saw three kinds of reactions among both IT and business people.

– Acceptance and relief; for some this was a great idea; would make thier life easier and was embraced.  My recollection is that these people were in the minority.

– Resistance and anguish; for some this was the worst possible thing that could happen; IT people feared losing contact with the business; business managers feared losing control of their IT resources and spend.  Some key people quit their jobs because, in their view, this undermined their ability to perform the job. Others fought the change.

These two responses were largely predictable; and to some degree the second group were just steamrolled over.

The third group were more cunning.
– Hiding and deception; some business and IT groups changed the job descriptions of the IT staff so that they were no longer “IT sounding” and so were excluded from the restructure.  The people did the same work, they were just hidden from the restructure.

The restructure didn’t account for this group and years after the restructure a number of business units effectively had shadow IT teams hidden inside their structure.

Rather than taking a mechanistic approach to this restructure and doing it all at once implementing the change over time, in small increments where the behaviour of the people can be assessed and the changes adapted to suit, would have been be more likely to be be successful.

This strategic restructure didn’t account for the organisational culture and that culture; at least in some areas, ate the strategy for breakfast.

So, in a very real sense, if you want to be successful your culture has to be your strategy.


 

(1) Generally this is true, even when the strategy is about implementing new tools of some kind.  The people using the tools will still need to change, to learn how to use them, to learn why they are better than whatever came before etc.  Many tool implementation based strategies have failed because the implementors failed to capture the hearts and minds of the people who were required to use the new tools.  This is especially common in software implemention projects.

Credit to Hugh MacLeod’s Gaping Void for the “People don’t resist change…” cartoon.

I’ve also developed a Prezi on this topic.