Do You Spend as Much (Quality Time) on Culture as You Do On Strategy?

January 19, 2023

by John O. Burdett

It’s become popular to use the expression “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It’s colourful, catchy, engaging, provocative … and wrong! We need both strategy and culture.

Strategy Is a Bicycle, Culture Is a Bus

Traditional business school thinking is that strategy drives culture. Figure out the strategy and then make the culture fit. In a steady state world, that model makes perfect sense. Except we don’t live in a safe, predictable environment. In a world of uncertainty the only thing that is predictable is that your strategy will be “subject to correction.” Long after the strategy has been shredded, what will endure is the culture. The new reality – culture enables strategy.

It’s become popular to use the expression “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It’s colourful, catchy, engaging, provocative … and wrong! We need both strategy and culture. The conundrum with a good metaphor is that logic doesn’t unseat it. We need a better metaphor.

Consider “strategy is a bicycle, culture is a bus.” It’s a mistake of epic proportions to assume the bicycle can pull the bus. Difficult when the road is flat; impossible on a steep incline. Know also that if the bicycle has to swerve – if, for example, a black swan runs into the road[1] – the bus will just keep on going … and going. And in the collision that follows … no prize for knowing the winner!

We need to get strategy on the bus … recognising that culture has primacy at the back of the bus! What does that mean in practical terms? The next time your team meets to discuss strategy make sure that culture is front and centre.

Preventing Cultural Drift

Organisations put culture on the back burner because of an attitude to change best described as “cultural drift.” Cultural drift is the misplaced belief that even if we fail to invest quality time at the top of the house on culture, somehow the secondary initiatives unfolding in the organisation (e.g., six sigma, process improvement, town hall meetings, reinventing the performance management process, engagement surveys) will get us where we need to be.

Making culture “a project” is a pretty good signal that cultural drift dominates the day. Delegating all things to do with culture to the HR function sends out a similar message.

In an uncertain and unpredictable world, to be a successful leader is to breathe life into the culture every single day. The problem? Intent and intestinal fortitude aren’t always aligned. What’s important gets in the way of what is essential. Early resolve is not the same as a successful outcome. And like the generals in WW1, far too many of those in key leadership roles are still fighting yesterday’s battles.[2]

The evidence from our own research, and that of others, is that four out of every five organisations are trapped by cultural drift. That is to say, only 20% of organisations are managing their culture.[3]

Culture Imperative: If you are not managing your culture someone else is! The union; a dominant customer; a predatory supplier; the local press; government regulators; and/or a function or sub-business that, because of past success, have undue influence and will be pleased to move into the vacuum.

1. A black swan event describes unpredictable, sweeping and highly disruptive change, e.g., the 2008 financial meltdown. Because few in the capital markets thought Brexit would happen … it was a black swan event.
2. In spite of the advances in machine guns and artillery, WW1 opened with all of the combatants using cavalry.
3. An eleven-year study by Harvard Professors, John Kotter and James Haskett, indicated that, over the course of the study, organisations that managed their culture had a stock price increase of 901% compared to an increase of 74% for those who did not. Corporate Culture and Performance (1992).

This article is an extract from “The 7 Questions Every CEO Should Ask About Culture“, © Orxestra® Inc.

John O. Burdett is founder of Orxestra® Inc. He has extensive international experience as a senior executive. As a consultant he has worked in more than 40 countries for organisations that are household names. John has worked on organisation culture for some of the world's largest organisations. His ongoing partnership with TRANSEARCH International means that his thought leading intellectual property, in any one year, supports talent management in many hundreds of organisations around the world. Get in touch with John O. Burdett »

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