Does Culture Really Eat Strategy for Breakfast?

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“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a popular quote, often attributed to the late Peter Drucker – although there is actually little evidence to support he ever said it. But, regardless of where the phrase originates you can now find a variety of similar quotes online which all reinforce the same sentiment, along with a long list of articles dissecting how and why culture (b)eats strategy in business.

So why am I adding to that list I hear you ask? Allow me to explain. I think we should be less concerned with endlessly debating the quote’s meaning and be more interested in why, despite its validity, so many businesses do so little to act on it. So, for those doubters out there, let’s begin by demonstrating the quote’s accuracy in simple terms.

If we take the word culture in the context of a company and look at the literal meaning then it consists of the ideas, customs, and social behaviours of the people within it. Now consider who is responsible for overseeing or delivering any strategy in any business…people.  

So, it stands to reason that if the desired “ideas, customs and social behaviours of the people” are not completely aligned with a company’s vision and long-term goals (what strategies are designed to achieve) then even the most proven strategy will be compromised from outset and thus fail to deliver to its full potential. Imagine trying to run a marathon whilst suffering from the flu. You’re unlikely to set a new personal best…

This simple truth makes culture the greatest influence on how any strategic direction is identified, understood and ultimately executed. Culture is the engine driving every aspect of business for every second of every day. Therefore, culture eats absolutely everything – breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Sounds pretty obvious, doesn’t it? So why do so many businesses place a greater emphasis on developing their strategy than they do their culture? The same reason why businesses often spend more time developing products and services – they seem easier to measure and influence.

There can be countless aspects contributing to a culture, and whilst it’s possible to break most of them down into categories, where would one start in order to achieve the desired result? They are all interconnected and changing one aspect, even the smallest, could have huge implications on others – much like the butterfly effect.

So how do you address such a big topic like culture in your business? First, you need to remember snowballs start small. But, like any good objective, you need to find a way to make your culture SMART. If you apply SMART principles to every aspect of your culture you can make it entirely tangible. Despite the simplicity of the acronym, this is no easy task.

There are no shortcuts or silver bullets, and certainly, no leaving anything to chance. If you really want an inspiring environment then you have to build one from the ground up, and whilst this is not for the faint of heart, the benefits will far exceed the hard work involved.  

You’ll notice I’m painting a somewhat challenging picture here with terms like “not for the faint of heart” and “hard work”. This is not for dramatic effect. Culture is not something you can buy off the shelf or cheat, and nor should it ever be – I cannot stress that enough. If you are only looking for quick fixes or ready-made solutions then I would question your commitment to your employees, customers, suppliers and therefore the long-term future of your business.

Creating a successful culture is not something you can play at or pretend to do – it needs to be authentic and you need to work on it every single day, because it is actively driving your business every single day. Now, this is your chance as a reader to tap-out and walk away. I will spare you any disappointment by telling you now there are no “top 10 tips to guarantee success” here. Instead, we will explore one or two fundamental aspects of building a successful culture in which businesses often get wrong, and hopefully, they will help you on your journey.

If you’re still reading this, you are already showing one of the main qualities needed to make any kind of desired change a success – always seek the truth. We often find ourselves surrounded by people who share our view of the world and in order to learn we must connect with those who see it differently.

The more perspectives we learn, the better we understand. Don’t be afraid of being challenged and having to defend or reconsider your views of the world – you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs so don’t be afraid of what you might learn.  Also, share what you learn. An inspiring workplace has no room for any heads to stay buried in the sand.

So, where do many businesses make their first mistake when trying to create a successful culture? Aside from the very nature of work which we explored in a previous article, it’s usually at the very start of the process when setting their core values. Company values usually vary from simple or lengthy lists to elaborate phrases which are then either pinned to a wall or stuffed in a drawer. Sound familiar? All of these methods have one common weakness – they are not specific. In order to make something measurable, it needs to be specific. A word or phrase in isolation isn’t enough, you need to fully define it.

I ran a session with a small group of CEOs recently and used a common value businesses try to maintain – integrity. I asked each CEO to define what “integrity” meant to them and noted 10 different interpretations. Therein lies the problem. If you are not specifying the meaning of each value, you are leaving your culture to chance. Not only are people then working to different interpretations, but they will also be judging their peers on how well they demonstrate their own understanding of the value.

Something so integral to your business as a core value needs to be clearly defined for it to be understood consistently. You wouldn’t leave a sales target open to interpretation would you? But even consistency in understanding isn’t quite enough, it also needs context. Values need to be linked to observable behaviour – that is what you are trying to influence after all.  Enter your next list – tangible, measurable behaviours.

This list I would try to limit to 4 as our brains have difficulty recalling anything which goes above that – if you make something hard to recall chances are it will never successfully embed. These observable behaviours all need to demonstrate the desired value in action and lend themselves to the rest of the SMART framework – be achievable, realistic, and timed. Whilst values will differ drastically from business to business, the influence of culture is constant so my advice would be to ensure every accompanying behaviour is measured daily.

So, once you’ve clearly defined a blueprint for a successful culture, how do you implement it? Surely once a culture is pointed in the right direction it takes care of itself right? Wrong. Whilst customs can be relatively easy to establish (or change), ideas and behaviours are far more complicated, being built up then reinforced over long periods of time. Ok, so maybe you delegate it to HR to deal with? Wrong again.

If properly empowered and with the right approach HR can certainly help maintain a culture, but if you are looking to change or evolve a culture it needs to come from the leaders within the business. Only they have the authority and influence to make the necessary change. This leads us to another pitfall for many businesses – how you make changes.

In order to create a positive, sustainable culture you need to give people a compelling reason to adopt the “ideas, customs and social behaviours” required. Unfortunately, most businesses still approach this motivational need by using carrot and stick methods, the same way many parents try to influence behaviour in their children – do something good you get a reward, do something bad you get punished.

Dan Pink expertly outlines the disadvantages of carrot and stick motivational methods in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us and backs it up with enough scientific evidence to make the flaws in this approach irrefutable. The bottom line is whilst manipulation, which is ultimately what carrot and stick methods equate to, often provides fast results, they never last.

Over time manipulation leads to self-serving, transactional behaviour and it’s a slippery slope from there. These short-term wins then create a need to continuously raise the bar in order to keep people motivated, resulting in an unsustainable cycle. So how do you motivate people without being sucked into a downward spiral of manipulation tactics? The answer is simple – you inspire them.

The culture of any business is constantly motivating or demotivating its people – it is never neutral. So back to our Flu analogy, if a business is too busy battling internal challenges, it is less likely to overcome the external ones. But why wouldn’t we want to create enjoyable, inspiring environments for us all to work within? How many have you worked in?

The US online retailer Zappos is a well-publicised example of what can be achieved with an inspirational culture – Zappos grew from $0 to $1billion in less than 10 years by adopting an ‘inside out’ approach to building a business. Their values and culture books can be found here. Notice their values are all positive statements? Our brains process positive statements much faster than negative ones – another minor detail that can help with early adoption.

Inspiration doesn’t happen by chance; it happens by meticulous design. When left to our own devices we have a tendency to gradually adjust our values and behaviours to better suit ourselves which can in turn slowly erode the consistency of any culture. It’s for this reason culture alignment will never be finished. There is no summit for you to reach.

The world is constantly evolving so there will always be new threats to your culture – the stress of falling behind to your competition, the need to innovate, or introduce new people. Inspiration is fragile and needs to be worked at every day. Rest assured, however, the results are well worth it – just ask Zappos, or one of the other beacons of light now illuminating the business landscape.

About the author

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Chris has spent the last 20 years helping a wide variety of start-ups, SMEs and corporates improve their business strategy, sales performance, operational efficiency, culture, and communication. With the experience of working at the board level across a diverse range of sectors, I have a passion for helping businesses break away from linear solutions and using creative thinking to unlock their full potential.