River Rafting You’ve heard the phrase: Culture eats strategy for lunch (or breakfast). (most often attributed to Peter Drucker).  This famous quote is usually evoked when a leader or executive realizes the environment is essential to successfully implementing a change or new strategy.

I’d like to challenge the use of this popular phrase.

Maybe you’ve followed Ford’s latest brilliant ad campaign (bed OR breakfast? hide OR seek?  health OR fitness?).  “Strategy Eats Culture” connotes culture is more important than strategy (as if one could exist without the other).  I am sure Drucker’s original meaning did not intend for that interpretation.

Strategy and culture are NOT trade-offs.  In today’s change-crazy world, it’s time to debunk 5 myths behind Strategy Eats Culture:

Myth #1:  “Culture is more important than strategy.” They are equally important, like the engine and wheels on a car. Leaders today have to manage and attend to both to succeed long-term.

Myth #2:  “A bad culture will eat a good strategy.” Smart leaders don’t allow this to happen. Great leaders formulate a market strategy their organization can WIN at. (Not a strategy that depends on making rabbits fly.) If the organization is not capable of executing on the strategy due to structure, leadership, or system/process limitations – then you must create a WINNING strategy or change the culture  … or both. IBM: Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? is a rare example of a fearless and visionary leader doing just that – changing culture and strategy simultaneously. It takes a LOT of will, patience, and courage.

Myth #3:  “Our culture will eat our strategy because it’s risk-averse, set in its ways, resistant to change.” Maybe so … and yes, culture can make doing something new very difficult, if it’s out of shape. When leaders view an inertia-locked culture as  a limitation to a vision and a winning game plan – or think their HR/change management team can muscle around it – this means they don’t know what to DO about culture. Like a person who is overweight and out-of-shape saying “My body is not athletic, I can’t run that race.”  True … not TODAY maybe …!  Smart leaders who are planning a shift in strategy, know that part OF that strategy is identifying what needs to change in the culture. Or whom. Specifically.

Myth #4:   “We need to change our culture.”  (maybe that’s not a myth!) We ask: How do you plan to do that? What about your culture needs attention?” Too often leaders ditch the goodness that exists in a culture without realizing it. It’s essential in culture work, to clearly define what behaviors are needed and what behaviors are getting in the way: More of, less of.  Specifically.  “We need a more collaborative work environment” is vague. “Shared goals from the top-down” is better. “Drive decision making to the lowest possible level” is great. Culture, like a good strategy, must clearly define how success will be measured, include a process to engage many people early and often, and rely on data and facts, versus intuition or vaguely defined actions.

Myth #5:   “Strategy belongs to leaders, culture belongs to people.”  There is a hidden belief among many leaders: “We set strategy … but culture is not really my job.” (usually because they don’t fully understand the job description).  BOTH strategy and culture are a leader’s job today – in a knowledge economy that requires speed and customer focus, these two essential business processes are not separable. Whether you are a President, CEO, head of a division, or team leader – you have a responsibility to explicitly set the tone for how you will win in the market (strategy) AND how your organization gets work done (culture) – and remove road blocks people are facing to achieving the vision, strategy, and goals. The good news is that today, there is solid understanding and proven best practices for how to manage and shift a company culture.  Visit our website for our complimentary “4-stage culture plan“.

Go have lunch and talk about your culture … then take action to be sure your organizational culture is not eating YOU.

Comments ( 5 )

  • James Creelman

    Couple of comments re the myths.

    1. I don;t think Drucker was saying that culture is more important than strategy, just that the former is always more powerful than the latter. Both are, of course, equally important,

    2. That you say that smart leaders will not let this happen suggests that the statement is not a myth. if it were a myth, leaders would not have to do anything. Also it is not about a ‘bad’ culture, but an inappropriate culture. A strong culture can be inappropriate, but might not be seen as bad.

    3. Again leaders have to make sure this doesn’t happen and so must identify the cultural elements that must be removed or refocused.

    4. Agree wit this, especially that culture should be defined in tangible, measurable ways. Most values statements are worthless because of this.

    5. Fully agree with this myth.

    • Lisa Jackson

      James, great perspectives. I see myths in this case as mind sets that are often unexamined, and thus create unconscious action. I also hear this phrase bantered about too often without really considering what it means. Thanks for adding to the discussion!

  • Daniel

    ”as if one could exist without the other”

    Definitely culture may very well exist without strategy. Is an inherent attribute of groups of people.

    To have a strategy the first condition is to have an organization (that is a group + working together + a common goal).

    Therefore while strategy cannot exist without culture, culture is fine and well without strategy.

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