Group of young professionals looking at a white board.

Define Your Path

Strategy vs. Culture: The Debate Rages On

During a recent executive interview, the person I was talking to said “culture beats strategy every time.”

At the moment I simply took the notes and moved on with the conversation. On my plane ride home I pondered that statement and remembered the old saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This phrase often gets attributed to Peter Druker but I can’t for the life of me find anything official that quotes him as saying it. Regardless, the idea that culture wins in a head-to-head battle with strategy over which will have the greater impact on an organization is not a new one. As I thought about it though, I realized this whole debate is kind of silly. The question should not be which one will win, but why aren’t they aligned?

Strategy is about creating sustainable competitive advantage that allows an organization to outperform its competitors (Brown, 2009). Strategies define the goals that the organization must meet and the plans that must be implemented to get there. Strategy is often formally defined and its success is determined by how well the organization meets its measurable objectives. Culture on the other hand is the shared basic assumptions that drive how people perceive, think and feel about an organization (Schein, 2004). Culture is much more difficult to define and measure but we can understand it based on the behaviors and artifacts of the people in the group. These behaviors and artifacts drive outputs, that in turn drive the measurable outcomes of the organization. As a result; when a strategy is not well defined — the culture then becomes the default strategy.

Considering this, I’m reminded of a talk Ed Schein gave at Benedictine University in 2006. It was a quite a packed house, and one of the first questions was how do we change an organization’s culture? I don’t remember the exact wording of the response, but in a nut shell it went something like this…

…define the culture you want, put processes in place that support that culture, then force people to use those process until they become the habits and shared assumptions of the organization.

Taking this answer into account, the next issue is what should we use to decide how we are going to define that culture? My recommendation, define it based on a well designed strategy. So while it may be true that culture is a stronger driver, most successful organizations get their cultures aligned with their strategies. So rather than debating about which one wins, how about talking about how to get them aligned.

About the Author

Jimmy Brown, Ph.D. is a senior level management consultant with seventeen years of experience leading efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for business performance improvement. Dr. Brown has held senior level consulting positions at leading firms such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Accenture and Hewlett-Packard. He is currently a Practice Area Lead with Beacon Associates.