One of the phrases I frequently hear — often attributed to management guru Peter Drucker — is that “culture eats strategy for lunch.” Many times, what’s being suggested is that strategy is, therefore, irrelevant.

Naturally, as a strategist, I disagree!

That said, it’s no accident that this quote has survived for as long as it has. Culture — particularly organizational culture — is a critically important topic. So, let’s begin by thinking about what organizational culture means…

In his recent book, Win from Within, Harvard Business School professor (emeritus) James Heskett described leading a study in which a simple hypothesis was tested: Does a strong culture lead to good performance? Without defining what “strong culture” meant, they studied a number of companies with this attribute.

The result? As expected, many of the best performers fell into this group. But… so did some of the worst!

Clearly, the issue is more complex than it may at first seem. Beyond strength, it’s important to consider what kind of culture your organization has, as well as how that culture connects with what the organization is trying to do.

For example, many (many) years ago, a friend of mine was part of the original Macintosh computer team at Apple. According to her, the culture there was terrible. Steve Jobs was a hard driver: offering harsh criticism in group settings, demanding complete secrecy, and expecting long work hours. Did Apple have a “strong culture?” Absolutely. And it was at least partly responsible for the successful launch of the Mac computer in 1984. You could certainly make the case that, however harsh it may seem, it was the right one for that task.

A second example of strong culture is the New England Patriots football team.While it’s true that the team is made up of highly talented, highly paid athletes (many with substantial egos), the coaching staff requires the players to focus on team rather than individual outcomes. Players with particular skills are often moved to different positions throughout a game as needed, allowing the team to adjust quickly as opportunities arise and injuries occur. Love them or hate them (I’m from New England; you can guess where I stand!), there’s no denying that the Patriots’ strong cultural focus on team over individual has served them well.

Sometimes, though, a strong culture can (literally) lead to disaster. Such was the case many years ago with Morton Thiokol. They were the ones responsible for the “O-ring,” the failure of which led to the Challenger explosion in 1986. Some of the engineers knew that the O-ring could fail under certain weather conditions, yet they said nothing as the launch proceeded on an unseasonably cold day. Their silence has been attributed to a “strong culture,” one which dictated that engineers don’t contradict leaders who sit above them in the hierarchy.

The point is, what matters is not simply having a strong culture… you also need the right kind of culture. Common attributes of that include:

Strong Sense of Purpose. This is something that today’s workers consider very important; the Apple Mac team certainly had it. In general, this often occurs when the creation of something specific (like an innovative new product) is a critical part of your strategy.

Adaptability. When a situation is uncertain and fluid, having a culture that is adaptable and open to change is essential. In a football game, each team enters with a game plan — one that is designed to succeed against the other team. But the risk of losing key players during the game due to injury adds to the uncertainty. In this environment, a culture that adjusts quickly is much more likely to succeed.

Safety. In order to excel, people need to feel psychologically safe in their work. That includes being confident that you can share your ideas or concerns without facing major blowback. While the O-ring situation is an extreme example, if your people don’t feel that it is safe to speak up, you can also end up making mistakes that would otherwise be avoidable (if not literally fatal). As important, you can miss opportunities as a result of people never bringing their creative ideas forward for consideration.

Diversity and Inclusion. Greater diversity of people means greater diversity of perspectives and thought, things that are valuable for any number of reasons. Further, according to the 2022 State of Talent Optimization Report, companies that create a safe and inclusive workplace have experienced 19% lower turnover.

Reflections

Culture matters, absolutely. But cultural strength, absent strategy-informed direction, is as likely to lead to disaster as to success.

In practice, and with all due respect to Peter Drucker, it’s less about one eating the other for lunch than it is about the two working together in tandem.

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