Culture and Strategy are Two Sides of the Same Coin

This post was originally published on the Switch and Shift blog

There’s a lot being written about organizational culture “eating strategy for lunch,” and I certainly understand the sentiment. Most of us have heard about companies who might have chosen a sound strategy, but watched it fall apart because a dysfunctional or even contradictory culture got in the way. Culture is powerful, and making the assumption that you can easily overcome its effect will surely come back to haunt you.

But the “eating for lunch” metaphor is fundamentally inaccurate. You don’t sit down one day and develop your culture, and then turn around the following week and develop your strategy, hoping that the two end up being compatible. That’s not how it works, at least not in successful organizations.

Culture and Strategy are two sides of the same coin. Remember, your culture is not some interesting “vibe” inside your organization—it is the collection of words, actions, and thoughts that clarifies and reinforces what is truly valued inside the organization. That’s not values, with an “s” (we all love integrity, honesty, quality, etc.), but valued, with a “d.” It’s what gets our attention, our resources, and our rewards. What is valued will drive our behavior, and that’s why culture is so important.

And that’s also why it has to be connected to strategy. Implementing strategy quite obviously requires a concerted effort on behalf of all your employees. Culture, in clarifying to everyone what is valued, will drive employee behavior, therefore the two concepts must be integrated internally. Your culture must value the behaviors that drive the success of the enterprise.

For example, in the research for our latest book, Maddie Grant and I studied a healthcare company in Omaha, Nebraska that provides rehabilitation services to people with brain and spinal chord injuries. This is tough work, to say the least, since they are not just providing routine healthcare—they are working to rebuild shattered lives. They discovered that rebuilding shattered lives is something you can only do when you connect to the deeper motivations inside an individual, so strategically, knowledge of the patient’s hopes, dreams, and desires became critically important inside the organization.

And their culture is completely in synch with this strategic insight. Internal decision-making authority, for example, is actually very flexible and fluid, despite the fact that they have a traditional hierarchy on paper. If someone lower in the hierarchy has more knowledge about the hopes and dreams of the patient, they will inevitably play a more important role in the decision making, even if that means the CEO has to take a back seat in the meeting. They didn’t choose to have a fluid hierarchy because they have an abstract belief about the power of decentralization. They choose to have a fluid culture because it drives their success.

So ignore the debate about culture versus strategy and who eats whom. Focus on integrating culture and strategy in order to generate the behavior that will give you consistently better results.

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2 Comments

  1. 26.07.2015 at 11:27 am

    Great post, Jamie. I’ve been a fan of the work you and Maddie have been doing since Humanize, and I’m glad to see you guys are still working together.

    I’m with you on your thoughts about culture and strategy.

    I also agree “culture eats strategy for lunch” is a poor metaphor for this, but so is one “trumping” the other. Perhaps its the same thinking. To me, culture is an incredibly important force in any organizational setting, but it is rarely understood. Your definition is a good one. I think it will be an increasingly important topic for all teams and organizations, whether inside corporate walls or outside in virtual, social spaces.

    Culture is a collective mindset that no leader can ignore.
    Culture influences behavior in ways leaders can’t control, and can barely influence.
    That starts a new dialog.
    What do they need to know?

    Keep up the great discussion. Looking forward to more.

    Chris

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