Culture: Your Strategic Ally

A colleague shared an exceptional article with me recently titled “Is Your Culture Built On the Right Foundation?” by Tim Sanders. Anyone who has worked with a strategy consultant has probably heard them say something to the effect of strategy trumps process, but culture trumps strategy; or as Tim Sanders quotes, “Culture eats strategy for lunch!” As a strategy consultant, what I mean when I say things like this is that people are more likely to behave in ways that culture rewards, than they are in ways that strategy rewards – especially if they are in conflict. For example, I worked with a multi-billion dollar company on strategy, the refined strategy was to include a higher level of sales within stores. One of the difficulties though, was a culture of “everyone does everything”, which meant that the HR Manager could be found stocking shelves – or worse yet those who were in the best position to find and sell to people were also found stocking shelves. Culture rewarded “teamwork” in the form of stocking shelves and keeping the store clean more than it did looking for and selling to people, so strategic roles were found sweeping floors and stocking shelves.

The problem with telling people that culture trumps strategy is that it puts culture before strategy in their mind, something like this Culture>Strategy, so they want to start the culture discussion before they have clearly defined strategy.  And as Tim Sanders points out, when conversations about culture are disconnected from strategy, they become, “a random process where words or phrases are thrown around until the group forms a consensus.”

Culture isn’t just about creating a place where people want to work because the organization’s values are aligned with theirs, with this approach you can end up with a lot of people who are aligned with your culture, but unable to act strategically as our previous example illustrates. The reality is that strategy should be clearly defined and then this clearly defined strategy should guide the cultural values the organization aspires to. The stories you tell to embed culture in the organization should also reinforce and clarify your strategy…and this can’t be done if culture and strategy have been separated.

Tim Sanders suggests to “Test the values that you base your culture on for business value” – I would add that culture and business value should both be driven by strategy. So, ask yourself, is my organization’s (or team’s) culture disconnected from our strategy? If it is, don’t jump into another arbitrary conversation about culture, start by clarifying your strategy and then let that clear strategy drive the conversation about culture. Rather than letting culture devour strategy, let it catalyze strategy.

Tim Sander’s article can be found here

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