The debate over culture vs strategy has lasted for a generation, but it shouldn’t be an either-or decision for company directors.
The executive team and the board must not consider culture and strategy as a competition. It should be a happy union.
But if push comes to shove, there’s only one winner.
Culture eats strategy for breakfast
Anyone familiar with this debate will likely know the old mantra: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. This not only suggests which side of the argument wins every time but also hints at the sheer scale of the victory.
To clarify: an organisation’s strategy is the carefully constructed roadmap that will enable it to reach its goals. Culture defines what organisations value and how employees interact to achieve their goals.
The latter eating the former for breakfast suggests that no matter how much time and energy goes into perfecting the perfect corporate strategy, if the culture takes the firm in the opposite direction, that will win out.
This can be especially true when a company is led by individuals who can’t grasp culture. Bad leaders will fall out of their depth. They won’t know how it works – or understand how important they are in shaping it – and they’ll ask others to fix it when it’s broken.
Such an approach is a recipe for disaster and will only reinforce the negative dominance that culture can have.
A culture should evolve on purpose, not accidentally.
Company culture doesn’t just evolve
Culture is tricky. Many new to management might think it is random and unique to each organisation – a way of working that “simply just evolves” with little wiggle room for malleability.
This is the wrong way of looking at organisational culture. Having a positive and productive culture is beautiful, but knowing whether it occurs on purpose or by accident is essential.
A thriving workplace culture is as designed and constructed as a good strategy.
What is good company culture?
Sometimes, companies get lucky with how their culture develops. The right people take the correct positions at the right time, and employees find it incredibly easy to work together while delivering results and making profits. But on its own, this is just luck, which only lasts for so long.
Consider what happens with a simple change in the number of employees. If a young company with a small number of workers suddenly sees enormous breakthroughs in the market and hires dozens more staff, the dynamic changes significantly. These are ripe conditions for a potential shift in company culture, and it can be for the worse if not appropriately managed.
Ultimately, a thriving workplace culture is as designed and constructed as a good strategy. Culture cannot be left for employees to “naturally” build themselves or for HR to fix which things turn complicated. Good culture starts with intent.
Culture and strategy are aligned in an ideal business, so why shouldn’t both win?
How to build a company culture
How can an executive team and the board build a good company culture? There are varying ways. Culture is, after all, harder to apply a metric to, meaning it can be approached far more broadly. But advocates of good workplace culture will frequently give the following advice:
∙ Define the type of culture desired
∙ Establish trust with employees
∙ Set clear cultural goals
∙ Reward good work or attitudes that align with the company culture
∙ Offer feedback
∙ Be consistent, and don’t let effort slide if progress starts off slow
Businesses should pursue these efforts around – or in tandem with – efforts to create a good strategy. This way, when it comes to the generational question of which one has more influence, management needn’t worry because they are concentrating their work on the two simultaneously.
Boards and management should remember: that the real winner in the culture/strategy debate is both. They are aligned in an ideal business anyway, so why shouldn’t both win?
Poor implementation of culture or strategy will lead to a shortfall in results.
Bad company culture
While culture and strategy can and should be aligned, the real tug-of-war exists between the two as a pair on one side and implementation on the other.
This is what makes or breaks an organisation: poor implementation of culture or strategy can lead to a shortfall in results – sometimes extremely fast.
Regarding culture, boards and senior management need to be extra vigilant. It can be difficult to recognise a gradual slump into poor implementation. This should be reviewed as much as possible, with whatever checks the company deems appropriate; outside adjudication, employee feedback, or new positions.
Just because culture is vaguer than strategy doesn’t mean it can’t be approached clinically.
The reason company culture is important
The actual take-home is that if there was ever a culture-vs strategy tug-of-war, then that competition ended long ago. The two have embraced the best of each other and are being considered alongside each other by competent management. Culture does predominate, but what difference should that make if the goal is to align culture and strategy?
Just because culture is broader and vaguer than strategy doesn’t mean it can’t be approached clinically, and it also doesn’t mean there aren’t experts who can advise on crafting culture if needed.
The question is execution. Do it poorly, and the company will suffer, do it correctly, and it stands a much better chance of success.