Don’t Handcuff Your Strategy

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“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

This Peter Drucker quote is well known, and oft repeated, because the validity of the statement resonates with so many leaders whose best-laid plans have been derailed by the seemingly illusive nature of “how we do things around here.” What’s more, often adding to the frustration, leaders can’t simply “decide” to change the culture, because edicts from on high only seem to reinforce the organization’s inherent thoughts, feelings and behaviors — sort of like a Chinese handcuff where the harder you try to pull your fingers (or your culture) away, the tighter the hold becomes.

If you can’t force a culture to change, and yet the wrong culture can handcuff your strategy, what’s a leader to do? Quit pulling! It works with Chinese handcuffs, right? When you stop trying to overpower and instead move toward what seems to be constraining your organization, its hold on you eases considerably. Fighting against a culture is draining. Conversely, working with it can be energizing and a key part of moving your strategy forward. Nice theory, right? But how exactly does one put it into practice?

First, recognize that no culture is all good or bad. That means you have the opportunity to view your organization’s culture as a source of strength. The “barrier” that seems to be derailing your best-laid plans may simply be the shadow side of the strength that can help your strategy succeed. Before you can use your culture as a source of strength however, you have to be able to get your arms around what it is — specifically — because every organization’s culture is unique.

Culture is built around the stories we tell ourselves about our organization, and the emotions we attach to those stories — we don’t give up . . . we are perfectionists . . . we speak truth to power . . . we are highly efficient . . . Notice the “we”. Culture resides in a group, not in an individual. Therefore it tends to be self-reinforcing. Organizations attract people who “fit” within their culture. So work with that. What specific behaviors from the stories your organization tells itself can help propel your strategy forward?

Jon Katzenbach refers to such traits and behaviors as “the critical few.” (See article) Focusing on the critical few (3 – 5) behaviors that — if expanded upon — can propel you forward, rather that trying to pull the organization away from those behaviors that seem to be impeding progress, generates the energy necessary for your strategy to succeed. The key is to build on behaviors rather than trying to change mindsets/cultures. We act ourselves into new ways of thinking rather than thinking ourselves into new ways of acting.

Once again, actions speak louder than words. Don’t handcuff your strategy.

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