Saturday, October 01, 2011

Culture eats strategy ... where's the data?

I find irksome the management mantra that is commonly spouted of "Culture eats strategy for breakfast" because no-one ever seems to be able to justify the statement with data. I thought I'll pen a few thoughts on this.

An organisation consists of a mass of people, activities and practices combined with reserves of physical, financial, human and social capital. It's the interaction of the former three which impacts the latter either positively or negatively.

Culture results from the interaction of people with social (e.g beliefs, values, reputation) and human (e.g. skills, knowledge, myths) capital. In much the same way, the business itself can be described through the interaction of people, activities and practices with various forms of capital.

Strategy, is simply a plan of action, an intention and an aim e.g. it's the act of trying to achieve a particular goal or result. Either something has a strategy or we leave it to chance, randomness and accident.

We often talk about product strategy, marketing strategy, business strategy and organisational strategy but equally (if not in many cases more) important is cultural strategy. If you don't aim or plan to develop a particular culture, you'll end up with something by accident and that is not necessarily a good thing.

In recent years, the creation, building, "gaming" and planning of culture has become an increasingly more visible topic. Few have highlighted this trend as much as Zappos and Tony Hseih's work on delivering happiness. Be under no doubts, you can plan to build a specific culture.

Once a culture has formed it can certainly impact what business, product and marketing strategies you can effectively deploy in much the same way that past product strategies often impact future product strategies through inertia such as concerns over cannibalisation etc. In some cases, a future product strategy may require you to plan a new culture by spinning-off a group from the main corporate body.

As a rule of thumb your future strategies are impacted by today's strategies.

Whilst I can see some modicum of merit in bland arguments such as culture trumps products in certain industries, the culture eats strategy argument appears entirely misguided because you can plan to create or change a culture. Your strategy might require you to create a new group, to focus on happiness or to game the system - it doesn't have to be random or accidental.

To cut a long story short, the "Culture eats strategy" statement hypothesises that :-

unplanned, random and accidental [lacking strategy] culture eats for breakfast having a plan, intention or aim [for culture].

... I'm sorry I don't buy that, especially unless backed up by considerable amounts of data to counter examples such as Netflix and Zappos which show the opposite.

The counter hypothesis is that having a strategy for culture, organisation, business, product, marketing etc is better than not having one i.e. strategy eats all for breakfast, lunch and tea. In other words having a plan of action, aim or intention to achieve a goal is better than relying on randomness, accident and fate to do the same.

Now, the counter hypothesis would appear to be an obvious truth which is dangerous in itself. So, I'll start the process of collecting data and let's find out whether the "Culture eats Strategy" brigade have a leg to stand on. I doubt they do but then I might be pleasantly surprised.