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  • Writer's pictureMirrorbox Leadership Lab

Culture vs Strategy

As Peter Drucker, the renowned management consultant, said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  When he said it, his main intention was to remind the business community that you can’t lose sight of your most important resource, people.  While we fully agree on the importance of creating a culture that will allow your organization and your people to thrive, we also believe that sometimes culture can become a liability.  Of late, we have noticed, when talking to different executives, a common theme around culture getting in the way of progress.   How could this be?

Before examining the ‘why’ behind this phenomenon, let’s first get clear on what we mean by culture.  When people talk about a company’s culture, it’s often framed as this invisible force that sets the tone for how people are with one another.  You often hear adjectives associated to a culture as a way of trying to describe it – ‘collaborative culture’, ‘get it done culture’, ‘flat culture’, etc.  The culture of an organization starts from the earliest days of a company’s existence.  As people come together in service of a company’s mission and vision, how they work together to overcome challenges and achieve objectives starts to define the company’s culture.  It’s in the trenches that cultures are formed.  It’s also how the leaders of the company define and role model the ways of being and working.  At its core, culture is a set of behaviors and values that become the norm for how people should behave and ultimately fit in.  It’s what binds people together.  Perhaps the most important thing culture does is that it allows us to identify with the company we work with.  We feel part of something, and it becomes part of our identity.  

Any time something becomes intertwined with our identity, we tend to hold onto it tightly.  It becomes how we see ourselves.  This is true both at the individual level and at the company level.  As such, the thought of ever changing anything that would call into question our identity is met with the most steadfast resistance. Which brings us back to how culture can get in the way of progress.  When the old adage, ‘what got you here, won’t get you there,’ becomes a reality sometimes this requires that we take a hard look at ourselves, both individually and collectively.  Sometimes this requires that we take a hard look at our culture.  What tends to happen when you suggest a change to the culture is that people assume that all aspects of the culture will change.  This doesn’t have to be the case.  

Over time culture becomes this amorphous and abstract thing.  You know it exists, but you have a hard time describing it.  That’s why any suggestion of changing culture tends to get framed as an all or nothing proposition.  It also becomes a convenient excuse in avoiding change.  “We can’t do that, it’s not part of our culture.”  If a change comes that requires an examination of your culture take the time to understand/unpack your culture.  Turn it from something abstract to concrete.  Break it down into its component parts.  If you have a ‘collaborative’ culture, ask yourself, ‘what does that look like?’  What are the behaviors and attitudes that make up the culture?  Spell it out.  Once you have an inventory of all of the elements of your culture, the next step is to see which elements are aligned to the change that you are facing, or to your future ambition, and which ones aren’t.  For those that are aligned put them to the side as those are the ones you can keep.  For those that aren’t aligned these are the ones you will have to either get rid of or modify.  As you start to get a sense of what needs to change in your culture, be transparent about what this is with the rest of the organization.  Acknowledge early what aspects of your culture will need to change and why. Engage employees in being part of the process and create accountability from the top down to ensure the new behaviors drive the desired culture.

Be intentional.  Your business, product or service can be revolutionary but your culture can be best sustained as an evolution.

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