Culture, First Among Equals

In my view, Peter Drucker is one of the best leadership thinkers of our time so when Drucker says something I sit up and take notice. If Drucker said it then there is a very good chance that it’s true. So when I discovered that Drucker said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” I became quite disturbed.  Why? Well, while I acknowledge the role and importance of culture I am an unashamed fanboy of the power of great strategy in driving organisational success. This disconnect between what I believed and the quote of what one of our greatest leadership thinkers seemed to suggest drew me into the whole strategy vs. culture debate. cultures

I immersed myself in the debate and I found the whole thing quite facile and self-serving. Most arguments seemed to rely on narrow definitions of strategy and culture in order to have validity. In the end the debate seemed to boil down to a debate about the relative importance of hard, rational and logical (strategy) vs soft, emotional and psychological (culture). This separation seemed ridiculous to me and was like asking which side of a coin gives value to the coin – the head or the tail? You need both or you don’t have a coin. I reckon it’s the same for great organisations. You need both great strategy and great culture to be successful in the long run and without both your chances of lasting success are very bad indeed.

Those of you who follow my writing will know that recently I have had cause to review and rethink my views on culture. I have captured this rethink in part in my previous blog. One of the outcomes of this review is I believe I have a new understanding of what Drucker might have meant by his quip that culture eats strategy for breakfast. For me it comes down to persistence.

Culture is very persistent. Much more persistent than any other part of an organisation. As a result, culture survives just about anything including your organisation’s current leadership and current strategy.  The implications of this are profound.  What this says is that if your culture and your strategy are misaligned, in the long run your culture will win – culture eats strategy for breakfast.

This insight has changed the way I look at what it takes to create and successfully implement strategy. Specifically it has challenged my view on the preeminent importance of strategic alignment.

Strategists, business writers, management gurus and I, love strategic alignment. The core message is – if you want to be successful in implementing your strategy you need to ensure that everything you do and the way you do it is appropriately aligned to the organisation’s strategic objectives. Everything includes priorities, resource allocations, financial investment, structure and “culture”. The strategy is preeminent and everything must support it. As a result, a change of strategy often results in significant investments in changing culture so that the culture supports the strategy. On the surface it makes sense, however if culture is persistent well past any individual strategy, initiative or leader, maybe we have got alignment wrong. Maybe we shouldn’t be aligning culture to strategy, but rather we should be aligning strategy to culture so that our strategy supports the development and expression of the purest and most value adding version of our culture.

Looked at in this light while strategy remains vitally important the role of strategy changes from being the overarching guiding light of the organisation to being an enabler of the ultimate expression of culture and if we are successful in achieving this then perhaps it will be our unique culture which is our advantage.

I would love your thoughts:

  • What do you think Drucker actually meant when he said “culture eats strategy for breakfast?
  • Do we have alignment wrong, should we focus to aligning to culture rather than strategy?

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