Culture vs. Strategy

on April 4, 2012

I recently saw a video post from Rachel Sklar on Fast Company’s site about Culture vs. Strategy.  You may have heard the saying “Culture will eat strategy for lunch,” meaning that culture tends to be stronger in a lot of organizations than strategy.  Rachel pointed out that anyone who thinks that culture and strategy are distinct is missing the boat on strategy.  Her position is that culture is part of strategy. Watch her video.

I can totally see where she’s coming from, but I tend to think of it a little differently.  Culture along with organizational purpose is who you are.  This is why culture tends to be one of the most enduring things in organizations.  After all, evolving who you are – embarking on culture change –doesn’t happen without self-reflection, discovery, and commitment.  Strategy is how you’re going about getting to the future. <So, in simplistic terms, I think of Culture, Strategy, and Vision like this graphic above.

I do agree with Rachel that Culture vs. Strategy is the wrong question.  Success in organizations is usually determined by how well and how fast an organization is reaching its desired future state (in the graphic, VISION).  The best way to accelerate the pace to your vision is to align your culture and strategy so that they are in lock-step.  This is where I believe Rachel and I really agree.

Think of this in personal terms for a minute.  Let’s say your vision is to become the President of the United States.  You can have the strongest field organization for your campaign, have great messaging on policies, and travel every day meeting people for a year –all elements of your strategy to win.  But if the essence of who you are at your core doesn’t love getting up every day and meeting new people, being curious about new things and new topics, enjoying problem solving on the fly, and responding well under pressure and constant change (all elements of who you are at your core), then it will be pretty hard to get to your vision.

We can debate what qualities are really required to win the presidency, and I’m not pretending to have the answers on that : ).  But achieving your future vision is a smoother and more effective ride when your culture and your strategy are aligned.  This means that they go well together.  They support each other.  They are well suited to one another.

Organizations whose strategy is at odds with their culture should think twice, as it’s easier to change strategies than to change culture.  However, sometimes culture change is the right choice to make.  If the culture is full of unhealthy practices, success will be difficult with any strategy.  In this case, pursuing the hard work of culture change is paramount for long-term success.   And there are times when a strategy is so compelling that to not evolve the culture to fit it is just plain short-sighted.   So, whether you’re thinking about a vision for yourself or your organization, consider these questions:

Are you clear about the vision you want to achieve?  How do you define your desired future state?

Are you clear about who you are and the strengths of your culture?

Are you clear about how you’re going after getting to the future?  Which strategy (or strategies) are you embarking on to pursue your success?

Drop me a line with your thoughts.  I’d love to continue the conversation that Rachel started for us!

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