ITB #4: Culture eats strategy for breakfast, but that's only half of the story

The latest issue of JDM's weekly newsletter: good strategy stands no chance in the hands of a dispassionate or apathetic team. But that's only half true.

cheetahs finishing off a kill

It's a long-held truth that the good strategy stands no chance against a bad culture.

Because people matter.

The company strategy can be brilliant in the abstract, but it stands no chance in the hands of a dispassionate or apathetic team. Peter Drucker memorialized this as "culture eats strategy for breakfast".

But that view is counterproductive.

Culture & strategy are a two-way street

The problem with viewing strategy as an input to culture is that it creates only one place to solve the problem.

It's easy to see where the culture-strategy myth comes from. We think that if we want our brilliant innovation strategy to succeed, we need to nurture the "appropriate" culture or, worse, that we need to fix our "broken" culture.

There is a clear value judgment here. The implication is that there is something wrong with the people. If only we fix the people problem, our brilliant strategy will succeed.

The fix is in the cubicles, on the factory floor, or with the "director of culture".

Anywhere but in the CEO's office.

So we browbeat the team and bemoan the lack of progress. We become misaligned on objectives, submerging conflict beneath the surface, and we erode trust.

All in service of the Brilliant Strategy™️.

But, ask yourself — how brilliant can a strategy be if it's not well-suited for the company you have?

Instead, treat culture and strategy as inputs to each other

A few years ago, I drew this on the back of a napkin, and it's stuck with me.

culture-strategy napkin sketch jdm

Culture and strategy form a loop. As leaders, we define strategy and put that into practice. As we see that strategy play out, we see what works well and what doesn't.

We watch it fail, because failure is data, which we feed back into strategy. We iterate.

What we do with that data is an open question:

  • Is the strategy the right one for us?

  • How can we tweak the strategy to better align with our culture?

  • And how can we nurture a culture to better align with our strategy?

What does this look like in practice? Here are three quick tips. 👇🏽

Tip #1: Focus on better, not good. It doesn't matter very much if you're "not there yet". Focus on the one thing you can do this week to get better. What can you put into action right now to get one small little click of the dial better?

Tip #2: Stop thinking about "good" or "bad" culture. There's no such thing. Culture just "is". The same culture may have been brilliant for last year, but suboptimal for next year. Look instead to where culture & strategy overlap.

Tip #3: Think about what motivates your team. People are intrinsically motivated. Teams don't perform for dog treats. If you want to steer the ship to somewhere new, discover how to excite your team about the new destination. Share a collective "why".

Remember that our goal as innovative leaders is to find the right combination of culture and strategy for this moment.

If I were to be so bold as to rewrite Peter's quote: a mismatched culture and strategy will eat each other for breakfast.

But I suppose that's not very pithy. 🙂

That's all for this week's newsletter: one tip on how to be a better innovator.

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See you again next week!


Published 7 months ago

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