Culture Eats Strategy….or Does It?


Transformation is HARD!  If you don’t believe that then you have never gone through one.  Often, when a transformation fails or an organization does not achieve its’ desired business results, “culture” is identified as the culprit or perhaps the scapegoat so says two Supply Chain Management professors in “Culture Eats Strategy . . . and how to deal with it”. Professors Hanson and Melnyk believe that blaming culture is often misguided and wrong.  “To understand and work with culture in times of change, it is necessary to break with conventional wisdom in many areas and dispel several management myths.”   The article, while written by two Supply Chain brains, focuses mostly on the challenges of making change happen within an organization and how important it is to “manage” that change and deal with / embrace corporate culture.

What is corporate culture?   Here are a few definitions:

  • the collective values, beliefs, principles and PURPOSE of an organization
  • “what people do when the boss is not around”
  • consists of group norms of behavior and the underlying shared values that help keep those norms in place

Culture develops over time, gradually, and in ways that are sometimes difficult to see.  As an employee, it is often hard to articulate the elements of corporate culture because you are living it every day.  But if you simply think about it as behaviors that are accepted and or rewarded then it becomes clearer.  For example, is it accepted for meetings to start late?  Do most people show up to work at 7:00 a.m. or 9:00 a.m.?  Might you get run over at 4:30 p.m. if you are too close to the exit?  Is it common or unusual to see a tie or a jacket or even hosiery?  Do employees offer suggestions freely or do they sit quietly and simply take direction from the boss?  Culture is also taught, in that it is passed on from current members to new members (very much like a family . .).    

Make no mistake that culture is a very powerful force  – particularly in a time of change.  So, how do you deal with culture?  You have two choices – 1. Work within the corporate culture – find parts of your change strategy that are consistent with your PURPOSE (culture) and exploit them or 2. Work to change the culture – it is doable BUT it is also HARD.  Culture takes time to emerge and it also takes time to change.

In either case, it will be necessary to dispel a few important Management Myths:

  • Show them a better way and they will embrace it – here employees must not only understand the “how” but also the “what” (the PURPOSE or the desired outcome). The “what” is often not communicated which is a problem. In addition, the “what” should also include “what’s in it for them”.  This requires frequent and ongoing  communication. Also, showing them a better way means that un-learning the old ways will be necessary and this is not easy. 
  •  Culture and strategy are natural enemiesthis is only true if management believes there is an inherent conflict.  Here, you need to understand the characteristics of the strategy / change and how to work with elements of the corporate culture where the purpose is aligned.   Where there is no alignment in purpose, creating a “crisis” ( I prefer “a burning platform”)  may be required.   This is  a compelling reason why the strategy / change is critical to “survival” and that the status quo is no longer acceptable.  This can provide motivation for the organization to abandon current practices and to adopt new ones.
  •  Don’t tell people how to do their jobs – tell them what you want done and get out of their way – conventional wisdom tell us that this is normally a very strong management practice. Unfortunately it relies heavily on organizational culture which drives behavior and decision making.  So in times of change, it will be necessary to tell people exactly what to do and how to do it – even executives.  This is hard for everyone involved but it is necessary until the culture can be brought  into alignment with the change strategy.

In summary, corporate culture is often blamed when a transformation fails.  Understanding the culture and how it aligns with your change strategy is critical to success.  Culture can eat a change strategy for breakfast – but with the appropriate “management” it can support it as well. 



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