Great Stories, Leadership

Culture Beats Strategy, Everytime

I have become fascinated with organizational culture. Long before developing our REACTION Dashboard as a tool for quickly assessing current culture and where the warning lights and celebrations are, I was noticing all the ways culture (what someone has defined as “the way things are around here”) impacted people and organizations without being intentional. Peter Drucker’s insightful quote is true – “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. For one example of a mature and highly esteemed organization struggling because their culture undermines their strategy see this piece by Pontus Staunstrup about the difficulty The New York Times is having adapting to a digital media reality. I see the same types of challenges as I interact with charities. Often worse. The nonprofit world, perhaps because of the general nobility of our purpose or our budget limitations, seems to develop and depend on strong organizational culture. We make assumptions about one another because of our shared cause. We know that in many cases the community environment itself becomes a centre of great loyalty. When new leadership arrives the unspoken culture is somewhat exposed, but still rarely acknowledged. Something doesn’t feel right, someone doesn’t seem to fit, there is tension in ways that weren’t appreciated, and there is frustration, confusion, suspicion, and second guessing. We try to “fix it” with strategy sessions, but we’re missing the deeper issue. It takes uncommon insight and sensitivity to skillfully surface culture challenges. The potential for conflict is very real as culture is rooted in identity, emotions, and relationships. It is taken for granted most of the time, and accompanying behaviour is assumed rather than explained. An interested, unbiased outsider can be phenomenally useful in drawing out the elephants in the room and helping determine which ones to keep in the culture herd. That’s one of my favourite roles. When have you stumbled into a culture defeating strategy? What did you do about it?