Does culture really eat strategy for breakfast?

eaon pritchard red jelly planner stragetyGood startups often point to their culture as a driver of their success, but Eaon Pritchard asks whether that culture can be derived without a clear strategy?

Culture, in an organisational sense, is usually interpreted as the collective behaviours, attitudes and beliefs that — when mixed together — create a particular set of norms within said organisation.

Obviously there can be ‘good’ culture and ‘bad’ culture.

And those companies where culture eats strategy for breakfast, it is reported that this clear set of shared values and norms actually shapes the way a company operates and is a fundamental driver of the financial success of the business.

A picture of this kind of strong culture features of passionate, empowered employees, deeply engaged.

These are high performing teams, trusting each other, communicating authentically and powering the business towards financial growth and reaching new heights of innovation.

And it all sounds plausible, especially when the usual suspects are presented as case in point. Zappos, Google, Ben & Jerry’s, Starbucks are among the most frequently mentioned. With the likes of new kids AirBnB and Uber now joining the ranks.

They have dynamic, engaged leaders, organic and vibrant self directed employees, empowered to take risks and fail-fast while truly caring about making a difference in the world. Etc etc.

It certainly seems plausible that culture does, indeed, eat strategy for breakfast. [The quote itself is attributed to Peter Drucker, though there’s no evidence he ever said it — other than the anecdotals of Mark Fields from Ford Motor Company, who attributed it to Drucker in a 2006 speech. Peter Drucker is on record, however, noting that culture is hard to change, therefore it’s sensible to try and work with whatever you’ve got].

So the fashionable idea is that within these kind of environments the sheer force of strong culture wills the organisation to success. Poor old strategy is relegated to a mere administrative function.

My fear is that the ‘breakfast’ quote has been skunk-ified and it’s proponents are somewhat culpable of mistaking story-telling for fact.

This interpretation of ‘breakfast’ is a halo effect. A halo effect being the cognitive bias in which a perception of one quality is contaminated by a more readily available quality.

For example; because Kanye West is a successful pop-rapper he must therefore know something about the advertising business and should be allowed to lecture us from Cannes.

In his book The Halo Effect Phil Rosenzweig describes (among nine distinct business delusions) the delusion of the wrong end of the stick.

The wrong end of the stick being a halo effect that tricks us into getting causes the wrong way round.

Is it that companies with a strong culture perform better?

Or is it companies with clear goals and strategies to achieve those goals are the high performing or growing companies that tend to get a better culture?

To paraphrase Rumelt; companies that are doing the work to uncover the critical factors in a situation and designing a way of coordinating and focusing actions to deal with those factors.

Yes, culture can eat strategy for breakfast but if there’s no strategy on the breakfast table then culture will soon get pretty hungry.

Does this sound conservative to you?

Well, the ‘breakfast’ lobby does appear to be the voice of the new digital business.

Purpose before profit right?

After all, we are now part of the sharing economy, one that ‘could just save the least advantaged from ravages of capitalism’ according to poster child and ‘culture driven’ TPG private equity funded Airbnb. Where presumably culture is eating strategy for breakfast.

I side with Rushkoff on this one.

‘[Silicon Valley start-ups] claiming to be saving the world, when they’re really just the latest generation of desperate yuppies chasing capital and,in turn, reinforcing Wall Street’s monopoly over our society. Digital business is revolutionary only in the way it camouflages business as usual.’

I’ll leave the last word to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, sociologist and former Democratic Senator for New York.

“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”

If business is really going to contribute to a better world then we’re best advised to focus on providing better strategy for culture to eat.

Eaon Pritchard is strategic planning director for Red Jelly Australia


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