Tuesday, July 08, 2014

does culture really eat strategy for breakfast?

Culture, in an organisational sense, is usually interpreted as the collective behaviours, attitudes and beliefs that - when mixed together - create a particular set of norms within said organisation.

Culture within the organisation gives people direction, and makes it easier for employees to find their way at work without having to think that much and get along with other people in the organisation.

Obviously there can be 'good' culture and 'bad' culture, depending on your point of view.

There are themes that many organisations seem to share.
Uniqueness is one of those.

For the most part unique culture is really a set of generic rules. 
Usually along these lines.

1. Be and think positively (this means total enthusiasm for any new idea, no matter how stupid)
2. Embrace change (but never ask why?)
3. Never criticise the work of others (see point 1)
4. Only look forward, never back (see point 1, again)

However, within those companies where culture is said to eat strategy for breakfast, it is reported that this clear set of shared values and norms actually shapes the way a company operates and is a fundamental driver of the financial success of the business.

A picture of this kind of strong culture features passionate, empowered employees, deeply engaged.

High performing teams, trusting each other, communicating authentically and powering the business towards financial growth and reaching new heights of innovation.

And it all sounds plausible, especially when the usual suspects are presented as case in point.

Zappos, Google, Ben & Jerry's, Starbucks are among the most frequently mentioned.

They have dynamic, engaged leaders, organic and vibrant self directed employees, empowered to take risks and fail-fast while truly caring about making a difference in the world. Etc etc.

It certainly seems plausible that culture does, indeed, eat strategy for breakfast*.

[*The quote itself is attributed to Peter Drucker, though there's no evidence he ever said it - other than the anecdotal evidence of Mark Fields from Ford Motor Company, who attributed it to Drucker in a 2006 speech. In any case Peter Drucker is on record noting that culture is hard to change, therefore it's sensible to try and work with whatever you’ve got].

So the fashionable idea is that within these kind of environments the sheer force of strong culture wills the organisation to success. Poor old strategy is relegated to a mere administrative function.

My fear is that the 'breakfast' quote has been skunk-ified and it's proponents are somewhat culpable of mistaking story-telling for fact.

I recently participated on the jury in an advertising awards show. One of my categories to judge was the 'agency of the year' prize. Around 7 or 8 finalists gave their presentations to the jury, each of them presented a section that outlined their respective 'unique values'.

You guessed it, all of the agencies unique values were practically identical. You could probably reel them off yourself right now, with no prompting. All bar one, I should add.

The agency in question presented no values at all, however did present a set of behaviours. Had it been down to me only they would have won the category. As it goes, they came second but that deviation from convention stuck with me.

Anyway, this interpretation of 'breakfast' is like a halo effect - a perception of one quality is contaminated by a more readily available quality. For example because Kanye West is a successful pop-rapper he must therefore know something about the advertising business and should be allowed to lecture us from Cannes.

In his book The Halo Effect Phil Rosenzweig describes (among nine distinct business delusions) the delusion of the wrong end of the stick.

The wrong end of the stick being a halo effect that tricks us into getting causes the wrong way round.

Is it that companies with a strong culture perform better?

Or is it companies with clear goals and strategies to achieve those goals (to paraphrase Rumelt; companies that are doing the work to uncover the critical factors in a situation and designing a way of coordinating and focusing actions to deal with those factors) are the high performing or growing companies that tend to get a better culture?

Yes, culture can eat strategy for breakfast but if theres no strategy on the breakfast table then culture will get pretty hungry and grumpy.

Does this sound conservative to you?

Well, the 'breakfast' lobby does appear to be the voice of the new digital business.

Purpose before profit right?

It's the sharing economy, that 'could just save the least advantaged from ravages of capitalism' according to poster child and 'culture driven' TPG private equity funded Airbnb.

Where presumably culture is eating strategy for breakfast.

Rushkoff puts it this way.

'[Silicon Valley start-ups] claiming to be saving the world, when they’re really just the latest generation of desperate yuppies chasing capital and,in turn, reinforcing Wall Street’s monopoly over our society. Digital business is revolutionary only in the way it camouflages business as usual.'

For those of us in advertising, rather than simply selling a respectable service we can pretend that we are doing something much more grandiose.

If business is really going to contribute to a better world then we're best advised to focus on providing better strategy for culture to eat.

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