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Does Culture Really Eat Strategy for Breakfast? Published: Sunday, November 4, 2012 12:01 am By: Ulises Pabón, Chief Operating Officer

“Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast” is a phrase attributed to Peter Drucker.  It has become the mantra of many leaders and managers and the subject of dozens of articles.  The argument of the mantra is that an organization’s culture is the key determinant in driving behavior in an organization.  Since behavior is the ultimate determinant of results, culture, not strategy, drives results.  

The thesis is seductive.  At QBS, since our inception over 23 years ago, we’ve dedicated our professional expertise to helping leaders transform their organization’s culture.  Decades ago, we were pioneers in bringing a socio-technical approach to change in times when the business world was pursuing reengineering and process improvement from a technical perspective only.  Our leadership in this field stems, in part, from the fact that we are a multi-disciplinary team where psychologists, economists, and engineers (among many other disciplines) work together in formulating and implementing business solutions

So, “culture eats strategy for breakfast” is music to our ears.  The problem is that the statement is flawed.  As seductive as it sounds, it is based on a false premise.  And, as much as we would like to applaud the contribution it has made in elevating business leaders’ awareness of the importance of culture, the side-effects of the medication are as lethal as the disease it attempts to cure.  Business leaders that conclude, as a result of adopting the “culture” mantra, that strategy is irrelevant, are a liability to the company, not an asset. 

The basic problem of the “culture eats strategy for breakfast” mantra is that it brings strategy and culture to the table as two divorced concepts.  Worse, it suggests that the way they relate to each other is competitive; it’s one or the other.  By implying an either-or framework between these two key instruments of organizational change and transformation, the “culture” mantra does a disservice to business leaders.  It confuses the issue by presenting a false dichotomy between the two.

The concept “culture” subsumes the beliefs, the artifacts, the rituals, and the behaviors that a group of individuals hold (in the case of beliefs) and engage in (in the case of rituals and behaviors).  It is a complex concept since it integrates elements of thought (beliefs), objects (artifacts), and actions (rituals and behaviors).  When we talk about the culture of an organization, we are subsuming in one concept all of the above.

The concept “strategy” subsumes the ideas surrounding an organization’s long-term course of action.  It includes the ideas about why the organization exists in the first place (its mission and value proposition); where, in the future, the organization’s leadership sees the organization (its vision); the challenges it needs to overcome to achieve its vision; the specific goals and objectives it needs to pursue; and the coherent set of actions the organization’s members need to follow.

Strategy and culture are intertwined.  Strategic dialogues need to incorporate discussions of the organization’s culture as much as dialogues about culture need to take place within the context of the organization’s strategy.  Strategy and culture are the Ying-Yan of organizational success.  Ignore one and you are at the peril of the other.  A strategy that ignores culture is as dangerous and ineffective as a culture that ignores strategy.

Can culture eat strategy for breakfast?  It can and it does, when leadership allows it to, by ignoring culture during strategy formulation, strategic planning, and strategy deployment.  Can strategy eat culture for breakfast?  It can as well, but why would you want it to?

Strategy AND culture are responsible for materializing and delivering your value proposition to your customers.  If they are to eat anything, it is competitors they should both eat!  Strategy AND culture eat competitors for breakfast!  That’s the mantra you should follow.  Bon appetite!

Copyright 2012 QBS, Inc.

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