Evolution of the Culture Versus Strategy Debate
Constant Creation of a Strategy Culture for Sustainable Success
I certainly don’t want to add to the noise level in the "Culture Versus Strategy" debate, however, a client recently asked my view on the subject. So, I thought I’d share my thoughts here.
For readers unfamiliar with the discussion, Mike Myatt wrote a pretty fair and helpful frame up in his Forbes article back in 2012. You can check out Myatt’s article here and his call for strong leadership is right on point, although I quibble with his depiction of culture (more on that below.) While I am not an academic business theorist, as a planning practitioner, the discussion is still relevant and important, particularly for those of us working on our 2015 strategic plans. And, business leaders may find practical use for the debate as a workshop topic in your strategic planning sessions.
Once pretty firmly entrenched in the culture camp, my thinking has evolved to recognize nuance in the debate. Here’s where I’ve landed to date: Excellence is needed in both areas for sustainable success. But, there is also symbiotic, evolutionary relationship between culture and strategy. For my money, the most interesting points are where strategy and culture intersect along the twists and turns of the path to success. And, like all good nuance, semantics matter. So, some quick, oversimplified definitions may be helpful (which will likely draw considerable critique):
Culture is not about funky offices, ping-pong tables, or flip-flops. Those perks and benefits are expressions of a culture at a given time. For me, it is best expressed this way: culture is how your organization behaves when no one is looking (thanks to Randy Donovan for this turn of phrase). Culture is the core essence of your work environment and your company’s expression of its collective ability to get the job done.
Strategy is the guiding answer to several complex questions which define the necessary resources (including, people, capital, assets and ideas); and how and when they will be deployed to reach your business objectives.
With these definitions in play, a question on my mind is the order of sequence. It is a bit of chicken and egg game. Does your strategy define your culture or is your strategy a product born from your culture? And, where do you first focus your efforts? That answer is largely determined by your company stage and other factors like company size and corporate structure (public vs. private). For instance, many start-ups are heavy on strategy because they are early in actualization of their ideas. Often, their cultures are largely driven by the personalities and preferences of their founders. In contrast, leaders of long established firms inherit legacy strategies and cultures. This is why, in many cases, leaders must assume the role of transformation – taking what they have right now and forging a new vision, new strategies and if necessary, new cultures that can make that vision reality.
Danger In Extremes
Taking an extreme position on either side of the debate leads to too many pitfalls. For instance, a leader that rejects a strong strategy because it is beyond the current capacity of the culture may be missing the power of a strong strategy and a great opportunity -- to transform an organization, transcend the company’s limitations and do something amazing.
On the other hand, a leader who does not fully recognize the limits of the company’s culture may doom a brilliant strategy because the team, in its current state, simply cannot execute the mission.
And this is why the culture versus strategy discussion and strategic planning at the highest levels is critical. The ideal state may not be fully realized maturity. Instead, the ideal state may be an eternal becoming, held in balance by an ever-evolving culture of strategy, where strategy guides company culture with a built in mechanism for evaluation, transformation and reinvention.
(OK, so maybe I am becoming more theoretical after all.)