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Why Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast

"Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast" - a business mantra that dominated fast-growing companies for the last decade, but why? What does it mean?

Within the world of business and fast-moving companies, there is one mantra that rings true for all of them “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. Mark Fields, the former CEO of Ford, realized in 2006 already that culture is more important than strategy. His reasoning revolved around the customer and the fact that the modern organization should be agile and adaptive to the ever-changing needs and desires of its customer. This does not mean that Fields believed strategy to be unimportant, but it means that it does not matter how good your business strategy is, it will fail without a company culture that encourages and empowers your people to implement it (read more here). In other words, according to another great thinker; “Power to the People!” (John Lennon, 1971).

Freedom and Autonomy

Although it is strange to find CEOs and political peace activists to be of the same opinion, there is a truth in what they believe. But what does this mean in reality? According to me, that means that, over time, we have got more freedom and autonomy to make decisions, in our personal and professional lives – which is for the better. Globalization and the internet have opened a window of choice and opportunity. This has naturally only been enhanced by free market forces in our everyday personal lives, but also in our professional lives. The entrance of a new, generally higher educated, workforce in the market and the flattening out of traditional hierarchies within organizations over time, has propelled the advance of professional positions with more decision-making power. A company used to have one or a few bosses who called all the shots. Rigid hierarchical systems made for narrow and isolated decision-making processes, causing all kinds of problems from obvious biases, tunnel vision, and even blatant arrogance or naivety. More and more decisions are being made outside the board rooms and C-level suites.

Just think about the number of vacancies that have included some sort of requirement related to decision-making, e.g.: “excellent decision-making skills”, “ability to make sound and effective decisions”, “proven track record of effective decision-making”, and “excellent problem-solving skills”. All these requirements show some form of autonomy and decision-making power that is included in the position. More evidence can be found in the tech industry which is often a frontrunner for economic and societal trends nowadays. Within the software industry, we see a lot of these similar ideas and terms. Terms like “hive-mind decision-making” and “mob programming” indicate a similar trend and a better understanding of democratic decision-making.

Culture, Decision-making & Empowerment

So, you might wonder, how are culture and decision-making related? Simple. Empowerment is the bridge between culture and decision-making. Once you empower your employees to make their own decisions, they will need some sort of guide to lean back on. A guide that will help them to make decisions related to setting goals, making priorities, scheduling, time management etcetera. In other words, they need a sort of guiding set of principles that help them motivate and prioritize decisions. Do you feel where I am going with this? Exactly, they need a culture that helps them in their everyday work life. A good culture means that people can take more decentralized decisions. They are not reliant on leaders to show them how to act, prioritize or behave in relation to their work. This means that your organization becomes more agile and resilient as leaders can be busy or absent. Less dependency also means that it is easier for your organization to exchange actors if need be. Think about your company as a sports team. It is easy to exchange players from your team if the overarching system works and if the team spirit is good. Individual players know what to do (overarching structure) and how to do it (team spirit).

The strong case for a competent culture to create a resilient and adaptive organization does not exclude the fact that a good strategy is needed to achieve the goals of the business. That is also not the original point that Fields made. His point was that, if you must prioritize your time, your first priority should be your culture and your second priority should be your strategy. A company with a bad strategy but good culture might succeed because empowered individuals can overcome the lack of structure through their individual decisions. But a company with a good strategy and bad culture will almost definitely fail as the unempowered employees will or cannot implement the strategy in practice. That is the key difference. That is why culture eats strategy for breakfast if you want to create a sustainable business.

Read more about how culture eats strategy for breakfast and how we can use culture as an organizational tool here.

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