Strategy Vs Culture – Can We Call A Truce?

Much discussion has transpired lately regarding strategy and culture – though, more so the battle between which is more important and why. Although I find the various points of view to both be of value and interest, I find the entire discussion to be quit absurd. Can we call a truce?

I imagine that if “Sally Strategy” and “Calvin Culture” were having a debate it would go something like this…

Sally Strategy: Calvin, I find that you sometimes make it very difficult for me to do my job! It’s hard to keep us on track when I feel you and I aren’t on the same page.

Calvin Culture: Well Sally, I sometimes feel the same way. Your job doesn’t always fit in with my work, sometimes you can be an impediment to what I’m trying to achieve.

Sally Strategy: Oh really, how’s that Calvin? What exactly is it you’re trying to achieve?

Calvin Culture: Well Sally, I’m trying to achieve building a positive environment for our people, an environment with a clear set of values and norms that engages and aligns our people, unifying them in delivering high performance and value to our customers. I just feel that the direction you’ve set can be a bit ridged and can be prohibitive to my work.

Sally Strategy: Interesting point, Calvin. You realize when I first started my work my intent was not just to help us formulate a clear direction and define who we wanted to be – but also to help us get there. It’s my job to execute, to get things done. Though we have come a long way since I first started my work and it may be time to revisit a few things. After all, I can’t get things done if I’m in the way.

Calvin Culture: Don’t get me wrong, Sally, I couldn’t do my job without you, and I value the direction and execution you bring to our work, as we both play a huge part in the happiness of employees and customers and in overall success, perhaps we could collaborate together more closely moving forward?

(*Aside – See the way that was phrased? Calvin acknowledged what Sally brings to the table and made her feel valuable and important to the process. Speaking to and providing feedback to your employees in this style can be beneficial to engagement and performance…but more on that in another article.)

Sally Strategy: That sounds like a fantastic idea. I’m glad we got a chance to connect. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today, Calvin. Let’s stay in communication.

In reality, culture and strategy are often viewed independently – they are both parts of the system and need to be viewed together.

Strategy can be defined in various ways…

According to Henry Mintzberg’s book, The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning: Strategy is a plan, a “how,” a means of getting from here to there. Strategy is a pattern in actions over time; for example, a company that regularly markets very expensive products is using a “high end” strategy. Strategy is position; that is, it reflects decisions to offer particular products or services in particular markets. Strategy is perspective, that is, vision and direction. According to Kenneth Andrews’s book, The Concept of Corporate Strategy: “Corporate strategy is the pattern of decisions in a company that determines and reveals its objectives, purposes, or goals, produces the principal policies and plans for achieving those goals, and defines the range of business the company is to pursue…” According to Michael Porter in his Harvard Business Review article and books:

Strategy is “…about being different…It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value.” “…It is a combination of the ends (goals) for which the firm is striving and the means (policies) by which it is seeking to get there.” A strategy delineates a territory in which a company seeks to be unique.- Michael Porter

Based on how most define strategy, the main reason for the existence of strategy is to achieve end goals. Culture is the environment in which strategy achieves those end goals. It is a general framework that provides guidance for actions to be taken, and, at the same time, is shaped by the actions taken…this shaping in part occurs due to the culture.

No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive – Mahatma Gandhi

Culture can be defined in various ways…

According to Edgar Schein: Organizational culture is “A pattern of shared basic assumptions invented, discovered, or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration that have worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems.” According to Charles W. L. Hill, and Gareth R. Jones book Strategic Management: Culture is “the specific collection of values and norms that are shared by people and groups in an organization and that control the way they interact with each other and with stakeholders outside the organization.” According to Geert Hofstede: “Culture is the collective programming of the human mind that distinguishes the members of one human group from those of another. Culture in this sense is a system of collectively held values.” “We tend to think we can separate strategy from culture, but we fail to notice that in most organizations strategic thinking is deeply colored by tacit assumptions about who they are and what their mission is.” – Edgar Schein

Whether written as a mission statement, spoken or just understood, organizational culture describes and governs the ways a company’s leaders, employees, customers and stakeholders think, feel and act. Culture may be based on beliefs or spelled out in your mission statement – which should be created as part of the strategy. Beliefs and values are words that will pop up frequently when defining culture. Culture is the identity of a company, and because of that, in some ways it becomes an identity of those who work there, as well. The people end up affecting the culture as much as the culture is affecting them. So while there are many definitions of organizational culture, all of them focus on the same points: collective experience, structures, beliefs, values, norms, and systems. These are learned and re-learned, passed on to new employees, and continues on as part of a company’s core identity.

So – culture is how “work gets done around here” and strategy determines “what work gets done around here.” A positive culture and a clear strategy are both needed for organizational, employee and customer satisfaction and success. After all…

A satisfied customer is the best business strategy of all. – Michael LeBoeuf

We need to call a truce and work more collaboratively, both between and with culture and strategy, to truly create high performing organizations. Based on the definitions, and based on my experiences, the relationship between culture and strategy is – or at least should be- a symbiotic relationship.