The Power Of Culture And Why It Eats Strategy For Breakfast


Picked up this article from LinkedIn. Really liked the perspective from Sukhwant Bal, a business psychologist, on why does culture “eat strategy for breakfast”.

Intro: Here at Unilever, we’re always reaching out to the brightest minds to help us grow and improve the way we do things. Sukhwant Bal PhD is one such example. A Business Psychologist who has written over 10 handbooks on leadership and culture, his work and opinion influences our own talent agenda. We asked Sukhwant to take a look at the hidden power of company culture and explain, once and for all, why exactly it ‘eats strategy for breakfast’.

You’ve no doubt come across that catchy phrase, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’

The phrase’s popularity can be explained by most of us in the business world knowing that a strategy only comes to life when it is carried ‘by the many’ – which in turn puts it firmly inside ‘culture territory’. Despite the commonality of the saying, few business leaders take the time to examine what the hidden power of culture actually is. Here, we share four of our perspectives on the matter:

1.) Culture is the oxygen and strategy is the fire-wood

Every strategy – no matter how brilliant – remains a promise. Until, that is, it has some energy, passion, conviction and oomph behind it. If strategy is the ‘fuel’ for growth, then culture is the oxygen that fans it. Turning promise into performance requires human ingenuity.

The hardest part of any strategy is making it live and breathe. For this to happen, it needs to be owned, understood and carried by everyone in your business. Strategy can’t be something that happens on the top floor. It has to be embraced by the shop floor. A vibrant culture gives license to others to make things happen.

Strategy fails when it’s cascaded top-down… it’s too passive, too directive and too impersonal. The cultural challenge for any leader is to engage ‘the many’ so they explore, discover and get energised by how they can make strategy live. Human personality and ingenuity is essential in shifting strategy from power-point slides to powerful actions.

2.) A toxic culture will kill a brilliant strategy dead in its tracks

What your website says about your culture and the reality deep within your business can be two very different things. So where do things go wrong?

You’re no doubt familiar with Newton’s third law; ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’. Simply put, organisations are littered with ‘unintended consequences’. No one knowingly or willingly wants to create a culture based on fear – but it happens.

When strategic projects are quietly shelved, mistakes are glossed over and people go from ‘hero-to-zero’ overnight… colleagues begin to play it uber-cautious. They commit to doing the right things, saying the right things and then proceed to play it safe. Fear-of-failure is more endemic than you may think.

High potentials and smart leaders often have more to gain from maintaining the status quo than they do overhauling it. Self-preservation kicks-in. Toxic cultures are not created by bad leaders but by the unintended consequences of their actions. In the heat of the moment, we say and do things which live long in the organisation’s memory. That’s rarely fatal as a single act but, cumulatively, small acts of insensitivity, anger and blame soon break out into a case of full-blown toxic culture.

3.) Culture is best witnessed by observing people when they believe they’re not being watched

Culture is hard to define and articulate. Yet its impact is massive. If you really want to get up-close to your organisation’s culture, become ‘an organisational detective’ and pay attention to the choices people make when they believe they’re not being watched.

Do they take the easy option? Do they shirk responsibility? Do they say, “It’s more than my pay-grade”? These small daily actions and choices speak volumes. Savvy organisations know that culture works best when colleagues self-regulate. To help every colleague make smarter choices, they raise the difficult stuff and create a safe place to talk. They know too many edits, rules and ‘thou shalts’ sends the unintended message that culture is controlled from ‘the top’. In a bureaucratic culture the default behaviour is of people hiding behind the rules. When they believe they’re not being watched they dial-off their judgement and simply read from the script. The desire ‘to-conform-to-the-rules’ looms large.

In a service culture, colleagues are more inclined to think like ‘owner managers’. Their instincts and motives are to resolve customer problems and if this means ‘thinking outside the box’ so be it. What leaders need to remember is they have a prevalent culture – whether they like it or not. Whether the culture is positive or negative often comes down to what gets openly talked about.

Too often we make subconscious choices which give rise to unhelpful habits. To change your organisational culture, start by getting people consciously making smarter personal choices – eyes wide open.

4.) Competitors can copy everything – but your culture

Too often culture is seen as the port of last resort. For brainy rational types, culture is simply too vague, too difficult to measure and too difficult to get your head around.

Technical and number oriented managers take comfort in re-engineering process, the supply chain or their cost base. They know culture matters – but wrestle with how to influence it. This is something Toyota has known for ages. It has opened its door, so anyone can learn from its lean production processes and countless hundreds have. Books galore have been written on Toyota’s secret sauce… But why have so few been able to duplicate their success?

The tools, methods and techniques just won’t fly unless you have a culture which supports it. Toyota’s culture advocates equal status – no hierarchy between managers and technicians. Anyone can stop the production line if they can see an error. Yet this only lives when technicians are not belittled, chastised or interrogated when they play this card.

The Toyota Way is to learn from every incident. This takes organisational maturity and humility. Something sadly missing in too many organisational cultures. Get your culture right and it can unleash performance. Get it wrong and it will stifle growth. No amount of ‘tinkering’ in the form of training, pay for performance or top-down communication will compensate for the ills in a ‘low-trust’ culture.

Source: LinkedIn, Stephen Lochhead, Global Vice President Talent and Resourcing at Unilever (link)

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