The most basic philosophical challenge that companies have with anything related to long-term people objectives such as raising engagement or building a strong culture, is that doing so is fundamentally at odds with the repetitive 12 month cycle of strategy dictated by their financial reporting periods.
Once you’re locked into a mindset of chasing this year’s objectives, it’s hard to love any form of deviation that might not deliver results until far into the future, and even then, results that demand the creation of an entirely different set of success benchmarks.
As a result, culture building is often a sporadic series of events that lack any form of strategic intent. Pizza Tuesday and a monthly team building open bar session become things that happen, rather than a reflection of the way we are, or even the way we want to be.
That’s a blatant error, though it must be acknowledged that in part, the unfortunate identity of culture is a result of the language that surrounds it.
Management consultant Peter Drucker is credited with the expression culture eats strategy for breakfast, and it’s the sort of pithy expression that is so loved for its catchiness that it gets repeated a million times per year at conferences all over the world without ever being subject to investigation.
But it does bear investigating. Let’s give it an analogy.
A group of friends go on a road trip to another city, to see a sports game. They get in the car and there are ground rules. If it’s a group of guys, they’re usually wonderfully cruel such as that the one with the strongest bladder determines when the bathroom pit stop takes place. You agree on music, you share the snacks and you each play a part to ensure that the road trip is nothing short of legendary. That’s culture.
The intention of the trip is to get to the next city in time for the game. That’s strategy.
Without a strategy, you’re just driving around, with no schedule, no destination, no real reason for getting in the car at all. You don’t even have a specific direction so at any given point, it doesn’t matter whether you turn left or right, or just keep going straight.
With a strategy however, you have a destination and a time by which you must get there. Your success is measured by whether you made it to the game on time; a simple measurement that is unambiguous and impossible to dress up should you fail. That means securing the tickets in advance, booking a hotel, deciding on a smart route to take, making sure the car is in good working order, stopping at sensible intervals to fill the tank and so on. Even ad hoc road trips demand a little thought.
The strategy therefore is absolutely key and to suggest that it can be easily subjugated is kind of stupid.
The culture on the other hand, is the thing that makes the attainment of that strategy worthwhile. The car full of guys are in it together. They play their part to make their road trip one that they will speak about forever. There is no room for anyone who sits in the back corner of the car and sulks, and in fact, the road trippers themselves have been selected specifically for their attitude.
Now, it’s certainly true you can have a road trip with four guys who don’t get along, and perhaps get to the stadium even faster than required, just because they can’t wait to get away from one another.
What you can’t have in that instance however, is any hope of repeating the result again, and again. Without culture, strategy is loveless.
Culture doesn’t eat strategy for breakfast. It gives life to the attainment of it. The two go so tightly hand in hand that neither of them make much sense without the other.