Strategy or Culture ? That is the question

Here is a very interesting article from Elliot S. Schreiber. Mr. Schreiber asks a very good question :

Which To Work on First, Strategy or Culture ?

 

Peter Drucker famously stated “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.   A great quote no doubt and quite right, but it still raises the question – one that we recently got from a board member at a client organization – “which should we work on first, strategy or culture”?

Consider the following; you are driving a boat.  You want to head east, but every time you turn the wheel the boat goes south.  In this analogy, the course direction is strategy; the boat’s rudder is culture.  They are not in synch.  No matter how hard you turn the wheel, the rudder will win.  That is what Drucker meant.

Every organization has a culture, whether it was intentionally developed or not.  This culture gets built over time by the personalities and principles of the leaders, as well as by rewards, incentives, processes and procedures that let people know what really is valued in the company.

Culture is defined as “the way we do things around here every day and allow them to be done”. Employees look to their leaders to determine what behaviors are truly values, as well as to the rewards, incentives, processes and procedures that channel behaviors.

Executives we work with often get confused about culture, thinking that they need to duplicate the companies that are written up in publications as having the best cultures.  We all know the ones in these listings.  They are the ones with skate ramps, Friday beer parties, and day care centers.  All these things are nice, but there is no need to duplicate these unless you are attempting to recruit the same employees and create the same products and services.  No two companies, even those in the same market segment, need to have the same culture.

We know from discussions with other consultants and business executives that there are many who strongly believe that culture comes first.  What they suggest is that since culture is there—it is the DNA of the company—it comes before strategy.  It may be first in historical order, but that is not what matters. You don’t need pool tables and skate ramps like Google to have a good culture.   What matters with culture is whether or not it drives or undermines value creation, which comes from the successful interaction of employees and customers.

We know from discussions with other consultants and business executives that there are many who strongly believe that culture comes first.  What they suggest is that since culture is there—it is the DNA of the company—it comes before strategy.  It may be first in historical order, but that is not what matters. You don’t need pool tables and skate ramps like Google to have a good culture.   What matters with culture is whether or not it drives or undermines value creation, which comes from the successful interaction of employees and customers.

So, here are two simple questions to ask to determine if your culture is the right one or not:

1. Does it cost us the same, more or less than competitors to recruit and retain top talent?

2. Are customers happy with the relationship they have with our company versus our competition?

If it costs you more to recruit and retain your best talent or if customers believe that competitors are easier to deal with, you have cultural issues that need to be dealt with.   We can guarantee that if you do not, you will not execute your strategy successfully, no matter what else you do.

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* Elliot S. Schreiber, Ph.D., is the founding Chairman of Schreiber Paris.  He has gained a reputation among both corporate executives and academics as one of the world’s most knowledgeable and insightful business and market strategists. Elliot is recognized as an expert in organizational alignment, strategy execution and risk management.  He is a co-founder in 2003 of the Directors College, acknowledged as Canada’s « gold standard » for director education.

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