It is always trendy to quote the ubiquitous bit of wisdom attributed to business guru Peter Drucker that "culture eats strategy for breakfast."
I don't buy it.
This sets up a false dichotomy that leads too many leaders to avoid addressing their responsibility to lead.
First, most leaders vastly over-estimate the strength of the culture of their organization.
And second, in the also immortal words of baseball player Yogi Berra, "If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there."
Wise heads of course know that you need both culture and strategy to create something truly distinguished. And only some seem to know how important it is to align culture and strategy with one another very intentionally and deliberately; and to invest in a sustained effort to nurture both. The alternative is just called drift. And drifting means dying or dead.
So instead of engaging in the banter fostered by the culture vs. strategy debate, put both on one side and see them together as the alternative to drift. Think of it as "culture and strategy together eat drift for breakfast."
Strategy in the wrong hands can get reduced to a numerical, financial exercise that sees market size, costs and capital allocation without a social context or true consideration of the power of diverse internal and external stakeholders. Culture can often get farmed out to functional units like human resources, and reduced to programmatic efforts like training, marketing and employee engagement.
A special issue of Harvard Business Review ("The Culture Factor, Jan-Feb 2018) includes a series of helpful resources. Boris Groysberg, Jeremiah Lee, Jesse Price and J. Yo-Jud Cheng contribute a piece called "The Leader's Guide to Corporate Culture" that offers helpful definitions. "Strategy offers a formal logic for the company’s goals and orients people around them. Culture expresses goals through values and beliefs and guides activity through shared assumptions and group norms."
I recently heard an emerging leader within a global high-growth company say something elegant about his strategy upon entering a new market. "We try to find out what the highest aspiration is for the city we are in and align our strategy to contribute to that. The result tends to be that the playing field tips slightly in our favor." It takes a very particular kind of employee and culture to even understand and execute on that kind of thinking. Fortunately, this particular leader is investing in both, and the more effectively he communicates the vision for both, the more successful they can be.
So get out of the illusory argument about strategy vs. culture and get the help you need to map out both and connect them to one another.
And whatever you do, don't drift.
Andy Tarsy is Principal and Founder of Emblem Strategic, a public affairs oriented coaching and consulting firm focused on helping leaders create socially responsible strategy and the culture they need to succeed.