Culture eats strategy for breakfast… The same way my Labrador stole steaks off the grill.

 
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Before her passing, my lab was notorious for roaming parks off the leash hunting unattended grills all the while masquerading as a willing participant in a game of fetch. Not a cheap analogy. Unattended, strategy is at the mercy of culture, especially in companies unaware of the role strategy plays in setting and maintaining culture. There’s been a lot written about the famous Drucker, Fields, whomever quote. The gist is that culture is something that needs attended to in parallel with purpose and strategy. There’s plenty of good perspective on the topic (Does Culture Really Eat Strategy?), but I’m not terribly interested in management theory. I’m much more interested in how the dynamics of groups can negatively affect outcomes, even when the spirit of those same groups is well-intentioned. This is how culture can powerfully disable strategies, planning, aka success.

Marianne Williamson “was” a Democratic candidate for President you probably didn’t hear much about as she spent the early days of her campaign well off the back from the front runners. At her peak, odds were +10,000 for her to win her party’s nomination. If you were looking for a longshot, Marianne fit the bill. In round one of the Democratic debates she quickly became the focal point of ridicule. Not because her policies are right or wrong, but because she’s a threat to what is to be expected. Post-debate Williamson responded to the near unanimous, complicit response from the media.

“The way pathology works in a group is no different than the way it works in a person. It doesn’t emerge from the conscious mind and sometimes the conscious mind doesn’t even see it. Whole groups of people unconsciously conspire in promulgating and acquiescing to dysfunctional patterns of thought. The pathological nature of our political system is that it’s basically a game of smoke and mirrors. For instance, if you do the ‘I feel your pain’ routine enough, then maybe people won’t notice that you’re not actually doing anything about it. Race is a perfect example. We have a side conversation—the theatre of sensitivity—to distract from the fact that what we’re not discussing is mass incarceration; shootings of unarmed black men; and environmental, criminal, educational and economic injustice. Welcome to politics, guys! We’re going to untangle this, but only by recognizing what is really going on.” —Marianne Williamson

Here we arrive at my point. Culture is, often times, the pathology inside of organizations that limits success outside, in the trenches, directly with consumers. Not due to the malicious intent of employees to undermine the good of the organization or even poor management, which are often the diagnoses regarding toxic culture, but rather out of the internal populace’s gravity as a group to “unconsciously conspire in promulgating and acquiescing to dysfunctional patterns of thought.” This is what is meant by culture eating strategy for breakfast. Organizations tend to harbor dysfunction.

Combatting pathological dysfunction is job one of strategic work. Good strategy creates definition, clarifies direction, highlights values, dictates action, and ultimately manifests culture. Yes, I said it. Culture follows strategy. However, because of the power of pathology all of this can be undermined by the unconscious dysfunctional patterns of thought among a team or group. Therefore, strategy cannot subsist in concept only. The requirement is its embodiment by each and every individual in the organization. This embodiment becomes the culture of the organization. Only then, when strategy is understood tactically, no longer existing as an abstract vision, does an organization become a reflection of its strategy. Only then does the pathology dissipate. Only then is there harmony of strategy, purpose, and culture.