Culture and Strategy are meant to dine together | Gagen MacDonald

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Culture and Strategy are meant to dine together

May 09, 2023

I remember sitting in a culture transformation kickoff meeting a little over 10 years ago. Around the table was a small group of select C-Suite executives and Human Resources leaders. The discussion was centered around improving the organization’s culture, which nearly everyone agreed was a major need for the company. I was new in the culture space at the time, in the role of an internal change manager. I listened, took notes and then worked with the “culture team” — the ad hoc group assembled in the room — to deliver on the culture transformation they desired.

We brought in a firm to assess the organization’s culture. They did this using an employee survey. They reviewed the outputs of the survey with the culture team, produced action plans for the divisions they determined needed improvement and handed the plans off to the culture team. In total, it amounted to several million dollars spent over the course of about 12 months.

At first, there was real energy spent executing the action plans set forth. HR conducted focus groups, engagement activities, pulse checks, communication initiatives and training. After around six months, however, the organization was not seeing improvement in the areas called out in the culture survey — engagement, ownership, accountability and agility — and as things failed to change, the effort gradually lost steam. Eventually it was pretty much abandoned.

Sound familiar?

Now that I’m steeped in both culture and strategy, I often reflect on this experience (and many others like it) and shake my head, bewildered. Not once did we talk about the type of culture we already had or the type of culture we needed to meet our strategic goals. It was never contemplated that we needed to understand why our culture was the way it was and fix the root causes of our problems. There was never an analysis of how wide the gap was between the culture we had and the culture that was needed. It was also given to HR to lead and execute, with little involvement of the business functions in the planning or analysis process (beyond taking the surveys) until it was time to execute the action plans needed.

Culture, in other words, was viewed through a silo. A strategic “why” for the project — something that tied it to the business’s actual work and what it was trying to accomplish — was never established. The entire time we worked under the false premise that a culture disconnected from strategy can be coherently “improved.” We never discussed how culture and strategy could be balanced to carry equal weight.

Today, most organizations theoretically know better than this. They agree that aligning culture and strategy is essential. Doing so doesn’t just produce better employee and customer experiences; it also enables a company to achieve its business goals. Still, however, countless studies continue to highlight businesses whose strategies don’t achieve the intended results, fail to realize the benefits of costly, critical initiatives or never see the intended return from mergers and acquisitions. The reports consistently tie these business failures to cultures that don’t align to strategy.

Why does this keep happening?

Ironically enough, I think a lot of this disconnect has been driven by a phrase that brought culture into the spotlight. The idea that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” has resonated with many over the past several decades because it highlights how radically overlooked culture tends to be, despite the incredible amounts of effort businesses put into crafting the smartest strategies. The idea is that if you don’t take the people side of business seriously, your strategies will not work as intended.

This is true, but in the years since it rose to prominence, the same phrase that shed so much necessary light on culture has come to drive a false dichotomy. While it’s driven leaders to see the importance of culture, it’s also driven a tendency I see today of people to treat culture as an independent beast; as a behemoth that is powerful but separate from the rest of your business identity.

This is just not how it really goes. In reality, culture and strategy must be viewed as two sides of the same coin. Even if you take culture seriously, you cannot meaningfully “improve” it if it’s not connected to strategy. The truth has never been that culture matters more than strategy; it’s been that you cannot have one without having the other.

It’s time we set our culture initiatives up for success by ending the idea that culture eats strategy for breakfast. The two need to dine together for either to be properly nourished.

An organization with a great strategy and poor culture will experience agonizing failure to execute or deploy initiatives. An organization with a poor strategy and great culture will suffer from lack of direction, and from immense amounts of energy wasted on initiatives that don’t have business impact.

An organization with a great strategy and a great culture, on the other hand, is nearly invincible.

Strategy is not a silver bullet to business success, and culture isn’t either. The most foundational problems businesses face can only be tackled by finding the threads that tie the two sides together.

This means culture can’t be treated as the sole responsibility of HR, or of any one department. One functional area simply cannot be the sole leader of a change that the entire organization will need to create and adopt. It also can’t be treated like an initiative with a distinct start and end. Your culture is an alive, constantly evolving thing, a multilayered concept that is both a collective identity and a daily experience. The process of improving it only works when you see it as connected to everything else about your business.

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