I hear this a lot: Culture eats strategy for breakfast (or lunch, dinner, a snack, whatever). And the notion behind the statement is understandable: Culture is a strong thing. So strong, the statement argues, that if an organization chooses a particular strategy that requires employees to behave in ways that go against the culture, it is likely the culture will win.
You can declare your strategy is to woo new members through speedy and proactive customer service, but if you’ve developed a culture where no one takes risks, and everyone seeks approval from the bosses (for fear of being punished for making a mistake), then you’re not likely going to have employees going above and beyond to serve those members proactively. They’ll wait until they get the green light from the boss. They know supervisor approval and covering your own back-side is what’s valued, and declaring your strategy requires different behavior will not overcome that.
Culture eats strategy.
That being said, the whole idea of culture eating strategy also has a tinge of ridiculousness to it. After all, who in their right mind would choose a strategy incompatible with their culture?
Culture drives behavior internally. Culture clarifies and reinforces what is valued, and STRONG cultures make sure what is valued is connected to what drives success.
In other words, culture and strategy are two sides of the same coin. As my friend David Gammel once pointed out, there shouldn’t be a debate about whether culture eats strategy or the other way around — culture should simply go out to lunch with strategy so they can get to know each other better.
Strategy can — and sometimes should — have an important impact on culture. If you’re that association that developed a culture of seeking approval and not taking risks, I’m sure that served you at one time. Whatever your current culture is, you’ve got it for a reason. But you actually might need to shift it based on strategic demands, like adapting to members who now expect a different kind of customer service. Strategic choices almost always have cultural implications, so that should be an explicit part of the strategy and implementation conversations.
Of course, this implies you actually know what your culture is and how it interacts with your strategy, and I’m afraid a lot of associations can’t even claim that. In those cases, culture probably is eating strategy for breakfast, but it might not matter, because their competition is probably already eating their lunch.