Why might your organisation’s culture eat your strategy for breakfast?
October 26, 2017 § Leave a comment
I mentioned the phrase Culture will eat your strategy for breakfast in our coaching session last week, and you asked for more details.
I hope the following is helpful?
On the surface, the phrase simply suggests that it’s irrelevant how much time and care an organisation pours into creating a strategy: it will be powerless against the prevailing internal culture, which will have far more impact on future behaviour.
For me there are also some deeper truths within the phrase, with implications for other realities of organisational life.
First to say, perhaps, is that we can’t expect a strategy-shaping process on its own to change the culture. An organisation’s culture is a product of history, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. It is a long-enduring reality. Culture is what is surprising or confusing to us when we’re a new-starter – and, infamously, culture is what we then are blind to after three months in the job.
Culture begins to shape itself the moment the organisation begins. If you’ve ever been involved at the start of an organisation or group, you may have witnessed this process happening around you.
(For more information, Edgar Schein wrote some of the most influential and enduring ideas on understanding organisational culture.)
The ‘joke’ is that it takes seven years to change significantly a culture. I don’t think that’s necessarily true in every case, but there’s no doubt that an organisational culture can endure even if the majority of staff leave and are replaced by new-comers.
Second, your strategy is enacted by, or mediated through, the culture. Culture is day-to-day, and every day. It regulates default behaviours and decisions. So if the strategy document imagines radically different behaviours, instead what will happen is more of the past. People will say ‘yes’ and act ‘no’.
This is why a good culture is such a prized organisational goal.
The reality, however, is the culture is what the leadership collectively behave (another Peter Hawkins quote). So changing a culture often requires an appreciative or solutions-focussed approach: identifying which behaviours do we want more of, or which of the staff are holding the attitudes or values we want everyone to have; and then naming and affirming those and giving opportunities to copy them. That’s why story-telling can work well in culture-change. And woe betide the leadership team when they fall back into the old ways without accountability or explanation: contradictions between espoused values and actual behaviour are never more obvious (and damaging) than in organisational life.
Lastly on culture, a quote from the business world: your competitors can copy everything except your culture. Companies – and not-for-profits – which can flourish in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambivalent world, have the characteristics for survival. Your culture collectively dictates your resilience, your flexibility, and your ability to innovate.
And whilst survival isn’t everything, it does at least offer more choices.
With best wishes,