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Culture Trumps Strategy

Culture Trumps Strategy

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Whether Peter Drucker uttered these words or not the truth still stands. Culture trumps strategy.

Drucker’s aphorism blankets c-suite conversations, is uttered by a pantheon of keynote speakers and has achieved mantra status. If it is so ingrained then why do so few leaders follow it?

There are one of four reasons I can think of.

  1. They really don’t understand what it means or its implications.
  2. They haven’t a clue about how to fiddle with, adjust or touch culture.
  3. They are too driven by urgency to address a less tangible and more complex side of the business.
  4. They don’t believe it or feel like they can overcome resistance through great execution and will power.

I think if we can answer the first reason those insights will cascade through the other three.

Implications: Several studies reference that between 70% – 90% of change initiative fail. Translated – your strategy has a 10% – 30% chance of success.

If culture trumps strategy then culture needs to precede or condition the strategic conversation, plan or initiative. Since it doesn’t we continue to have dismal failure rates.

Understanding: Culture describes the invisible values, attitudes, habits and behaviors that run the place when you are not there. In other words it is what happens when you are not there. Another way to say this is: Behavior – minus management presence = culture. I have come to coin this your “Living Culture.” 

You either have a healthy living culture that liberates management to build and develop or, you have one that is killing you and forcing your managers to…daily monitor, direct and react to the invisible attitudes, habits and behaviors that reside and run the place.

Behavior minus management presence puts a whole new spin on the culture conversation and how to condition culture for change. So, throw out your (well crafted and expensively acquired) mission, vision and values statements for this exercise. They have nothing to do with the day-to-day culture that actually runs the place.

In a follow up blog I’ll address how to distinguish between your Public Face, Living Culture and Aspired Culture. I’ll also share how we’ve helped organizations identify their Living Culture and condition it for change.

I want you to walk away after digesting this blog with a strong conviction: the culture question must precede strategy.

I’m providing two links that I recommend as must listening and reading to grasp why culture needs to be the front end conversation and integral to successful strategy.

The audio link is from This American Life. It is the story of General Motors and the NUMMI initiative in the 1980s to the present. It is particularly relevant for those leading initiatives in Lean and Integrated Project Delivery. It is also relevant to every leadership team embarking on a change journey. The Podcast interviews Jeffrey Liker author of The Toyota Way and James Womack author of The Machine that Changed the World.

Link to the NUMMI audio

Link to the NUMMI transcript

This Podcast makes painfully clear that culture declares, “This is how we do things around here, thank you very much!” It is the hibernating bear that sleeps until you poke it with change. If you haven’t tamed the bear then new ideas or strategy are simply devoured.

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