Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast

I always wondered what this oft quoted statement meant, until I experienced it firsthand. It was a fascinating learning experience to ‘feel’ – just like smell, touch, taste – an Organization culture like never before. I believe it is important for all of us to understand and appreciate the role of organization culture in shaping our lives. Especially, when we spend a significant majority of our active day at work!

I don’t aim to restate the academic definitions here. My endeavor here is to throw light on those aspects of organization behavior which are conspicuous but still we choose to ignore. Hence, I felt it is imperative to start with something fundamental.

I have lived with this phrase ‘Organization culture’ all my professional life. I aced this subject at business school. Ironically, when I questioned myself- how can I explain it to anyone in the simplest terms- it was a big struggle! So I turned to Google for help. It helped, but hurled back more jargon at me. Not satisfied, I sat back, reflected and wrote what I understood best.

What is Organization Culture? 

The simplest way I look at it is ‘behavior’. How individuals or teams in an organization behave in different situations with different stakeholders – employees, customers, investors and partners.

Our behavior in personal arena is driven by our background, our beliefs and the surrounding environment. So is the Organization behavior.

Why is Culture important?

A Great Culture-

  • Attracts finest talent
  • Promotes innovation
  • Inspires a bias for flawless execution

In short, it guarantees long term success. Isn’t it a magical place to be? A Bad Culture is even more incredible. It can obliterate organizations – big and small!

For me culture is omnipresent. I feel it in various aspects of an organization – decision making, project execution, customer service, cross functional collaboration, employee recognition, office space layout, talent pool. Let us take a simple example of something we do every single day at office – Meetings. Apart from familiarity, the reason I pick this is that it offers a glimpse of various facets of organization culture. Take a minute to answer the following simple questions of the meetings you attend every day.

  1. Do you clearly define a meeting agenda?
  2. Is the agenda communicated to all participants?
  3. Does everyone come prepared?
  4. Does the meeting start and end on time?
  5. Do you feel motivated to ask questions and share your ideas?
  6. Is there a moderator to steer discussions around the core agenda?
  7. Are the meeting minutes captured with clearly defined next steps and ownership?

We can’t quantify Organization culture. But questions like these will help us with fair qualitative assessment. I will let you visualize – How does it feel to be part of an organization which has razor  Focus, relishes Questions and uncompromising Accountability, appreciates talent Diversity versus one which does not?

We are what we do repeatedly. It is hard to change our values, our behavior and hence our style of working. Then, how can we be genuinely caring towards our customer when we are chronically chaotic internally? No strategy, however well-thought, can survive a bad culture. Resulting in back-breaking results– lost revenue opportunities, losing invaluable employees and shareholder value etc.

I have seen organizations badly struggle to change the culture after reaching a certain size. Short term ‘tsunamis’ take a toll on organizations quarterly results, raising capital, attrition etc. Thus, creating a fertile ground for focus-on-culture to take a back seat. There has to be a really good reason to care, to commit and to act. Based on my experience, I am suggesting few ideas to nourish an inspiring culture. I am sure there will be many more.

  • Start with WHY – Clearly explain ‘Why’ a renewed focus on ‘Culture’ is paramount. Illustrate it with examples which people playing different job roles can easily understand. For example, the impact a customer service engineer can play in going the extra mile to save $$ for customer by fixing the problem in assembly line.
  • Senior leadership – They have a critical role to play with a well-defined vision and an executable plan which celebrates small victories. They need to walk the talk and inspire the rest of the organization.
  • Build a team of ambassadors – Identify champions who are well respected and have a proven record of being influencers. They will lead the transformation on the ground.
  • Lateral hiring – Bring in fresh blood of lateral hires who have right experience and can inspire the desired change. Can get tricky, so need to do this carefully.
  • Training– Regularly train the employees. Share motivating stories from inside as well as outside the organization. Encourage a mindset which eliminates the barrier to exchange ideas, collaborate and celebrate.
  • Recognition – Appreciate and reward the genuine individual or team contributions. Aim to quantify the impact created by such contributions.

I would love to hear your ideas on bettering organization culture. It can immensely contribute towards the well-being of entire humanity.

Before we finish, take a look at what the celebrated business leader and Intel co-founder Andy Grove says about the great man, Peter Drucker, whose renowned statement intrigued me for long-“Drucker is a hero of mine. He writes and thinks with exquisite clarity – a standout among a bunch of muddled fad mongers.”

This article was originally published on LinkedIn and has been republished with the permission of the author.


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